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As this 2019 annual report is completed, humanity faces an unprecedented crisis as a deadly strain of coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, rages across the world. While the full history of the evolution of SARS-CoV-2 is still being identified, virtually every other recent pandemic threat—like swine flu H1N1 or bird flu H5N1—has been directly linked to factory farms. Farm Forward has long argued that there is no other public health measure that could so dramatically reduce the risk of another pandemic virus emerging as reforming industrial animal agriculture.
Our approach maintains that the ill health and suffering of factory farmed animals aggravates a cluster of public health problems that includes both infectious zoonotic diseases and the loss of efficacy of antibiotics (due to their overuse on industrial farms). That billions of sick, suffering animals pose a public health risk is not only intuitive—it’s medical fact.
Farm Forward took our first deep dive into research on the link between pandemic threat and factory farming when we collaborated with Farm Forward Board Member Jonathan Safran Foer on his 2009 bestselling book
Eating Animals. Our research became the basis for the book’s fourth chapter on pandemic influenza.
We again took a deep dive while working on the 2018 film documentary version of the book. As a writer on the film, I penned the words that Natalie Portman narrated, evoking the memory of the 1918 pandemic (caused by a bird flu) to cast our current vulnerability in bold relief:
“The 1918 pandemic was unlike most influenzas that attack the weak. This one preyed on the young and healthy. The virus spread around the world, travelling on the boats that moved across the oceans. Estimates suggest that one-quarter of the world fell ill. 24 million died in a 24-week period. By now, the deadly strain of influenza had not disappeared from the planet even though it had largely disappeared from our minds. Where is the virus now? Is it on route from the wings of a bird?”
–Natalie Portman in the 2018 documentary, Eating Animals.
Like influenza, coronaviruses are common in farmed animals. What has kept me up this past week is the knowledge that for all the mobilization and disruption SARSCoV-2 has caused, if this had instead been H5N1 or certain other influenzas, we would be in an far worse situation. The death rate for SARS-CoV-2 is estimated to be at most 2-3.5% of those infected. H5N1, which continues to loom, has a 60% death rate.
In the pages that follow you’ll read about the considerable strides we’ve made in 2019 in Changing Policy, Changing Farming, and Changing Narrative. Given the significance of this world-historical moment, I want to point out how our efforts in 2019 have already put us in an ideal position in 2020 to amplify the aspects of our work that have always addressed the links between pandemics and industrial farming:
“The same conditions that lead 76 million Americans to become ill from their food annually and that promote antimicrobial resistance also contribute to the risk of a pandemic. This brings us back to the [2004 conference by FAO, WHO, and OIE which reported] … on emerging zoonontic diseases … Breeding genetically uniform and sickness-prone birds in the … conditions of factory farms promotes the growth and mutation of pathogens. The ‘cost of increased efficiency,’ the report concludes, is increased global risk for diseases. Our choice is simple: cheap chicken or our health.”
–Eating Animals 2009, pages 141-142
We continue to see a future, not so far off, where plant-based meat has replaced most factory farmed animal products, and where the animal products that are consumed are produced on farms where animals have robust lives worth living, where farmers are treated with dignity, and which help regenerate the environment. To get there, perhaps we do not so much need to extend the circle of compassion as recognize that, whether human or nonhuman, we animals are all related in our shared biological vulnerability, all subject to disease, and all in need of a new and better way to eat and farm.
Aaron S. Gross
Founder & CEO
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