Intensive animal agribusiness is often hailed as a necessary means of providing affordable food to a growing population - in fact in recent decades, this form of farming has become so pervasive that 95% of the meat consumed comes from factory farms.
But intensive animal agribusiness isn’t just costing billions of animal lives: scientific studies around the world have shown industrial farming comes with a high cost to human health. A price state governments in Australia seem intent on paying.
Excessive use of antibiotics fed to animals crammed into small spaces mean factory farms are breeding grounds for harmful viruses and bacteria to spread. Couple this with extensive land clearing of wilderness areas involved with large-scale animal agribusiness, and we are being now being exposed to deadly diseases we’ve never experienced before.
The Link Between Large-Scale Land Clearing and Wide-Spread Disease
Intensifying agribusiness may seem like a space-saving idea, but in reality, it encourages more land use, because as animal farming intensifies, so does the industrial production of animal feed crops like grains and soy. Shockingly, it is now estimated that a third of the world’s cereal production goes to feeding animals on industrial farms (1), and land clearing is continuing to occur on a massive scale.
Australia is known to be one of the worst offenders - we rank right up there alongside Brazil, Indonesia, New Guinea and the Congo when it comes to deforestation (2) - and the vast majority of this is being done for livestock.
On a state-by-state level, Queensland is the worst offender. In the six years to 2016, the annual rate of land clearing in Queensland increased by 330 per cent - from 92,000 to 395,000 hectares (3). But here in NSW we moving in the same direction. The New South Wales Government gave permission to clear over 7,000 hectares of native vegetation in 2015-16 - an increase of 800 per cent in just three years (4).
This excessive land clearing doesn’t just put native vegetation and wildlife at risk, it also poses threats to human health, as experts agree that it is our encroachment into wilderness areas that exposes us to new and dangerous diseases.
‘’The more we clear, the more we come into contact with wildlife that carries microbes well suited to kill us—and the more we concentrate those animals in smaller areas where they can swap infectious microbes, raising the chances of novel strains.’ - Scientific American.’ (5)
Clearing land not only reduces biodiversity, but it means the animals that are left over will absorb the viruses and become hosts, passing those viruses from host to human, or through an intermediary animal.
And this is not a small risk. Research suggests 70% of new viruses that are harmful to humans are zoonotic - meaning they originate in animals - and with over 320,000 different potential strains waiting to surface from mammals (6), it certainly makes sense to leave wilderness areas alone.
Factory Farms, A Breeding Ground for Pathogens
While much of the blame for the recent covid-19 pandemic was placed on Chinese wet markets for providing an environment in which viruses could thrive, experts agree that we should be looking closer to home at our very own factory farms as potential sources of new virus strains. Conditions in wet markets are surprisingly similar to those in factory farms, with animals squeezed tightly together in small spaces with little to no exposure to sunlight and fresh air. This means as soon as one animal is sick, a virus can very quickly spread, because once it finds a ready source of hosts, bacteria thrive and become more resistant (7).
And we know this has happened before: In the late 1990s, the H1N1 flu virus (swine flu) originated in factory farms in North Carolina. A mutated form of this North Carolina virus later popped up in a factory farm in Mexico where it spread around the world, leading to the 2009 H1N1 flu pandemic, which killed between 151,700 - 575,400 people worldwide (8). The 2006 outbreak of bird flu that originated in China also turned into a full-scale pandemic.
These should have been signs to move away from intensive animal agribusiness, but instead it continues to increase with the so called ‘solution’ leading to a slew of new problems.
The Rise of the ‘Superbug’
The antibiotics that are meant to treat these diseases in animals are routinely fed to animals in large doses to prevent disease but also to promote fast growth. This means bacteria are living in conditions that allow them to develop a resistance to the antibiotic and transform themselves into what is known as a ‘super-bug’: a form of bacteria that resists any form of treatment, and which can turn a simple infection in a human into a deadly disease due to its inability to respond to the antibiotic treatment (9). These bugs can transfer to humans when the urine and faeces of these animals are used as fertiliser, or through the direct consumption of meat (10). Although Australia has taken steps in recent years to address the issue of antibiotic resistance thanks mainly to the Australian Veterinary Association issuing guidelines and the banning of fluoroquinolones by the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority (11), there is still no national system to monitor how many antibiotics are given to farmed animals in Australia (12).
Further, the fact that the majority of antibiotics used in animals are the same as the ones used in humans is a major concern, prompting many medical researchers to claim the resistance to antibiotics will become a greater threat to human health than cancer.
So What Can We Do to Ensure a Safer, Disease-Free Planet for Animals and Humans?
There’s never been a more crucial time to re-think our relationship with animals and the environment. Intensive animal agribusiness not only sees gentle animals experience extreme cruelty to produce meat and dairy for a growing number of consumers but it has become a threat to human health as well. However there are a number of steps we can take to create a safer environment for humans to live in.
The most important step is reducing meat consumption and replacing it with more plant-based options like pulses and legumes. This will reduce the destruction of land for crops to feed farm animals. If you must include meat in your diet, try to stick with meat sourced from local farms, where small numbers of animals are free to graze on grass that is a much healthier diet for them. These animals much less likely to be pumped with antibiotics and are more likely to produce healthier food.
Our MP Emma Hurst is taking action against intensive animal agribusiness in NSW Parliament, make sure to sign her petition HERE and support her work by becoming a member of the Animal Justice Party HERE. Your support and membership fee go towards helping us put animals on the political agenda and letting the NSW Government know we are unified in helping to end animal suffering.
1. J. Lundqvist, C. de Fraiture and D. Molden, Saving Water; From Field to Fork – Curbing Losses and Wastage in the Food Chain SIWI policy brief, 2008
4. NSW Govt, 2014-2016, NSW Report on native vegetation, https://www.environment.nsw.gov.au/-/media/OEH/Corporate-Site/Documents/Animals-and-plants/Native-vegetation/nsw-report-native-vegetation-2014-2016-180288.pdf
5. ‘Stopping Deforestation Can Prevent Pandemics. Destroying habitats makes viruses and other pathogens more likely to infect humans’, Scientific American, June 2020, https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/stopping-deforestation-can-prevent-pandemics1/
6. Moscona A. (ed) ‘A Strategy To Estimate Unknown Viral Diversity in Mammals’ American Society for Microbiology, mBio Sep 2013, 4 (5) e00598-13; DOI: 10.1128/mBio.00598-13
7. P.Lymbery and I.Oakshott, 2014, Farmageddon, The True Cost of Cheap Meat, Great Britain, Bloomsbury, p.138
9. M. Wenner-Moyer, How Drug-Resistant Bacteria Travel from the Farm to your Table, Scientific American, December 2016, https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/how-drug-resistant-bacteria-travel-from-the-farm-to-your-table/
11. Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicine Authority (APVMA), 2014, Quantity of antimicrobial products sold for veterinary use in Australia 2005-2010
12. The Australia Institute, 2013, Culture of Resistance: Australia's response to the inappropriate use of antimicrobials, www.tai.org.au/node/1943