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MEAT OF THE MATTER: The meat we eat is also a pandemic risk

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It’s easy to blame foreign places for generating pandemics. But this ignores the fact that the way people eat meat all around the world is also a major risk factor for pandemics.

SIGAL SAMUEL: Some experts have hypothesized that the novel coronavirus made the jump from animals to humans in China’s wet markets, just like SARS before it. Unsurprisingly, many people are furious that the markets, which were closed in the immediate wake of the outbreak in China, are already reopening. It’s easy to point the finger at these “foreign” places and blame them for generating pandemics. But doing that ignores one crucial fact: The way people eat all around the world — including in the US — is a major risk factor for pandemics, too.

That’s because we eat a ton of meat, and the vast majority of it comes from factory farms. In these huge industrialized facilities that supply more than 90 percent of meat globally — and around 99 percent of America’s meat — animals are tightly packed together and live under harsh and unsanitary conditions.

“When we overcrowd animals by the thousands, in cramped football-field-size sheds, to lie beak to beak or snout to snout, and there’s stress crippling their immune systems, and there’s ammonia from the decomposing waste burning their lungs, and there’s a lack of fresh air and sunlight — put all these factors together and you have a perfect-storm environment for the emergence and spread of disease,“ said Michael Greger, the author of Bird Flu: A Virus of Our Own Hatching.

To make matters worse, selection for specific genes in farmed animals (for desirable traits like large chicken breasts) has made these animals almost genetically identical. That means that a virus can easily spread from animal to animal without encountering any genetic variants that might stop it in its tracks. As it rips through a flock or herd, the virus can grow even more virulent.

Greger puts it bluntly: “If you actually want to create global pandemics, then build factory farms”… We know from past experience that farmed animals can lead to serious zoonotic diseases (those transmitted from animals to humans). Just think back to 2009, when the H1N1 swine flu circulated in pig farms in North America, then jumped to humans. That novel influenza quickly became a global pandemic, killing hundreds of thousands of people… The other pandemic risk associated with factory farms has to do with… antibiotic resistance.

When a new antibiotic is introduced, it can have great, even life-saving results — for a while. But as we start to use and overuse antibiotics in the treatment of humans, crops, and animals, the bacteria evolve, with those that have a mutation to survive the antibiotic becoming more dominant. Gradually, the antibiotic becomes less effective, and we’re left with a disease that we can no longer treat… The CDC warned in a major report last year that the post-antibiotic era is already here: We’re living in a time when our antibiotics are becoming useless and drug-resistant bugs…

So it’s worth asking: Is there a way to do livestock farming that diminishes the threat of zoonotic disease?… Americans were already getting excited about plant-based products before the coronavirus came along, and there’s reason to think the pandemic will drive even more interest, both because the traditional meat supply chain is now under some strain and because of a growing awareness that factory farming is a pandemic risk. SOURCE…

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