My grandmother is in her nineties and my sister, who is only in her thirties, has an autoimmune disease, and works in medicine. I don’t need to spell out the risk they are in because of COVID-19. And I don’t need to know who is reading this to assume that you have a similar list of loved ones. It is more than reasonable in such times to limit our focus to simply making it through coming months. Yet it is precisely the precariousness of the lives of people we love that make it unconscionable to postpone taking actions that could dramatically reduce the risk of another pandemic. The magnitude of suffering our actions now could reduce is simply too great.
The CDC reports that 3 out of every 4 new or emerging infectious diseases come from animals.1 We’ve all heard about wet markets and their probable role in the emergence of COVID-19. Many are wisely calling for various forms of bans of wet markets and the Chinese government has already banned meat from wild animals at them. Yet an equally great, or possibly greater, risk factor for another pandemic well-attested in the scientific literature has received surprisingly little attention: the particularly striking role that industrial poultry plays. Commercial pig operations are also implicated with notable frequency, and other aspects of agricultural production figure as well, but industrial poultry is for pandemics what fossil fuels are for climate change.
The crux of the issue is that we know that most of the influenza viruses with pandemic potential considered “of special concern” by the CDC emerged from commercial poultry operations. Read that sentence twice.
We also know why industrial poultry is so efficient at producing novel viruses. Tens of thousands of genetically identical birds, along with their excrement, are packed in a single building creating an environment ideal for viral mutation.
Significantly, all these birds are immunocompromised. Novel “hybrid poultry” breeding techniques that became widespread in the 1970s created fast-growing genetic strains that are now the exclusive basis for the global industrial chicken industry, but these techniques simultaneously devastated the immune systems of the chickens and turkeys we eat. No other farmed animals have been so dramatically re engineered at the genetic level. Industry opts to keep these fundamentally diseased birds alive through controlled environments, constant use of antibiotics, or simply killing them before the full pathology of their genetics has manifested.
The modern poultry industry is a perfect storm for a pandemic plague: an ideal environment for pathogens, ideal almost-identical hosts with fragile immunity, ideal conditions of filth and feces, and on a mind-boggling scale.
Globally there are fewer than 100 million cattle, perhaps 2 billion pigs, but more than 23 billion of our food units are individual chickens (up from 14 billion in 2000).2
We are fortunate that scientists understand the viruses that cause pandemics as well as they do. They can tell us, for example, that on April 9, 2020 the USDA identified a highly pathogenic H7N3 avian influenza in the U.S. for the first time since 2017—they can even tell us it was detected in a South Carolina commercial turkey flock.3 The CDC reports that H7N3 has “primarily caused mild to moderate illness in people.”4 It is strange to consider that good news, but it is.
Had they detected another virus on the watch list, H5N1 (bird flu), we would be facing the imminent possibility of a pandemic that would make coronavirus look mild. The CDC reports that H5N1 kills humans at roughly 30 times the rate that COVID-19 does—a 60% mortality rate.5 And unlike COVID-19, H5N1 does not spare children.
Banning industrial poultry does require, what some might call, a sacrifice: chicken and turkey would return to their historically higher price, which is closer to beef. Is more expensive chicken worth the sacrifice? There is a seesaw: on one side is the modern industrialized poultry industry and the likelihood of another pandemic, and on the other side is greater reliance on other protein sources, a return of actual poultry farming, and a guaranteed safer future. We are currently barreling toward another pandemic. The current White House is even likely to direct most of the $14 billion in much-needed aid slated for agriculture in the COVID-19 stimulus package to support the very forms of agriculture that make a pandemic more likely.6
By contrast, political leaders like Corey Booker, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren have started, quite sensibly, to speak about a moratorium on building new industrial farms. This would indeed be progress, for the growing poultry industry spells growing pandemic risk. But is maintaining the threat of another pandemic at its current high level the best we can do?
If the science really does show the poultry industry is a major risk factor for pandemics, as I suggest is beyond doubt, why would we hesitate to ban industrial poultry? If this pandemic risk were about how how we produce cars or computers would we hesitate to demand a change? The issue may very well be that it is not about chickens at all, but the industry their lives suffer to serve.
Our relationship with food is complicated, emotional, and intimate—perhaps with meat especially. Chicken soup is supposed to be soothing. Turkeys help us celebrate Thanksgiving. We make our food choices for complex reasons, but public health does not figure high on the list. Yet we cannot let our nostalgia over soup mislead us with stakes so high.
The production of any product through methods that menace the planet with another pandemic should be ended. Industrial poultry barely existed two generations ago and our generation should be the last to tolerate it. Building the political will to ban industrial poultry will be hard, even to imagine. Real change always is. Yet, if the present moment teaches us anything, it’s that everything can change. There is no exemption for industrial poultry from this immutable law. It is, simply and profoundly, our choice.