Avian flu: blame factory farming, says report

Posted: 29 September 2005

Since the latest outbreak of avian flu began in Southeast Asia in 2003, public health officials and the media have referred to the threat as a "natural" disaster. However, avian flu, mad cow disease, and other emerging diseases that can jump from animals to humans are symptoms of the spread of factory farming, according to a new report from the Washington-based Worldwatch Institute.

Factory farms are breaking the cycle between small farmers, their animals, and the environment, causing damage to human health and local communities, says Worldwatch Researcher, Danielle Nierenberg in the report entitled Happier Meals: Rethinking the Global Meat Industry. She says this dangerous fallout requires a new approach to the way animals are raised.

The report notes that the greatest rise in industrial animal operations is occurring near the urban centres of Asia, Africa, and Latin America, where high population densities and weak public health, occupational, and environmental standards are exacerbating the impacts of these farms. Concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) account for more than 40 per cent of world meat production, up from 30 per cent in 1990. Once limited to North America and Europe, they are now the fastest growing form of meat production in the world.

"If [Upton Sinclair's] The Jungle were written today, it would not be set in the American Midwest," says Nierenberg. "As environmental and labour regulations in the European Union and the United States becomestronger and more prohibitive, large agribusinesses are moving their animal production operations overseas, primarily to countries with less stringent enforcement."

Industrial systems today generate 74 per cent of the world's poultry products, 50 per cent of all pork, 43 per cent of beef, and 68 per cent ofeggs. While industrial countries dominate production, it is in developing nations where livestock producers are rapidly expanding andintensifying their production systems.

Host of problems

"Factory farms were designed to bring animals to market as quickly and cheaply as possible. Yet they invite a host of environmental, animal welfare, and public health problems," says Nierenberg.

Among the leading concerns cited in the report are:

  • Crowded, inhumane, and unhygienic conditions on factory farms can sicken farm animals and create the perfect environment for the spread of diseases, including avian flu, bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, or mad cow disease), and foot-and-mouth disease.

  • Factory-farmed meat and fish contain an arsenal of unnatural ingredients, among them persistent organic pollutants (POPs),polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), arsenic, hormones, and other chemicals. Overuse of antibiotics and other antimicrobials in livestockand poultry operations, meanwhile, is undermining the toolbox of effective medicines for human use.

  • Factory farming is resource intensive: producing just one calorie of beef takes 33 per cent more fossil-fuel energy than producinga calorie of potatoes. Eight ounces of beef can require up to 25,000 litres of water, while enough flour for a loaf of bread in developingcountries requires only 550 litres.

  • Despite the fact that fisheries worldwide are being fished out, about a third of the total marine fish catch is utilized for fish meal,two-thirds of which is used to fatten chickens, pigs, and other animals.

  • Only about half of all livestock waste is effectively fed into the crop cycle; much of the remainder ends up polluting the air, water,and soil.
  • Lower meat prices

    Global trade and advertising, lower meat prices, and urbanisation have helped make diets high in animal protein a near-universal aspiration,writes Nierenberg, noting that the world price of beef per 100 kilograms has fallen to roughly 25 percent of its value 30 years ago. Meatconsumption is rising fastest not in the United States or Europe, but in the developing world. From the early 1970s to the mid-1990s, meatconsumption in developing countries grew by 70 million tons, nearly triple the rise in industrial countries.

    Other trends concurrent with the global spread of factory farming include:

  • The number of four-footed livestock on Earth at any given moment has increased 38 per cent since 1961, from 3.1 billion to more than 4.3 billion, while the global fowl population has quadrupled since 1961, from 4.2 billion to 17.8 billion birds.

  • In Europe, more than half of all breeds of domestic animals that existed a century ago have disappeared, and 43 per cent of remainingbreeds are endangered. As developing countries continue their climb up the protein ladder, the genetic stock of their livestock is eroding ashigher-producing industrial breeds crowd out indigenous varieties.

  • The true costs of factory farming are not reflected in the low price consumers currently pay for meat. Environmental and health effects - such as rising antibiotic resistance and cardiovascular disease-are absent from most assessments of the costs and benefits of this growing trend.
  • Exploring new approaches

    Addressing the ill effects of factory farming will require a different approach to the way we raise animals, says Nierenberg. Positiveinitiatives include educating consumers about the benefits of organic and grass-fed livestock and of vegan and vegetarian diets; supportingsmall-scale livestock production; encouraging producers to adopt alternative production methods; and improving occupational and welfarestandards for both animals and industry workers.

    In response to intensifying consumer demands and other factors, several food companies and international policymaking and funding institutions are exploring new approaches to the business of food. In the United States, McDonald's Corporation and Whole Foods Market have introduced more comprehensive animal welfare standards in the past decade.

    In 2001, the World Bank reversed its previous commitment to fund large-scale livestock projects in developing nations, acknowledging that there was a significant danger of crowding out smaller farmers, eroding the environment, and threatening food safety and security. Also, in June 2005, the 167 member countries of the World Organization for Animal Health unanimously adopted voluntary standards for the humanetransportation and slaughter of animals.

    While many in the agribusiness industry have embraced food irradiation and genetic engineering of livestock as solutions to the myriad problems caused by factory farming, such technology-based responses are often merely stopgap measures, says Nierenberg. "These end-of-the-pipe remedies are certainly innovative, but they don't address the real problem. Factory farming is an inefficient, ecologically disruptive, dangerous, and inhumane way of making meat."

    Worldwatch Paper 171: Happier Meals costs $7plus shipping and handling, and can be purchased through the Worldwatch website (www.worldwatch.org) or by alling .888.544.2303 (in U.S.) or .570.320.2076 (from overseas), or by faxing 570.320.2079.