DEAR READERS: While investigations and controversy continue over the origin of the coronavirus responsible for the COVID-19 pandemic, we need to address our continued exploitation and consumption of animals, both wild and farmed.
Zoonotic (animal-to-human) diseases reflect the nature of our relationships with other species. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states: "Zoonotic diseases are very common, both in the United States and around the world. Scientists estimate that more than 6 out of every 10 known infectious diseases in people can be spread from animals, and 3 out of every 4 new or emerging infectious diseases in people come from animals."
Pandemics of swine and avian influenza generally originate from open markets and slaughtering in poor rural and peri-urban communities where centralized processing and cold storage facilities are not available, and from workers exposed to infected animals inside overcrowded factory farms. The spread of these diseases can only increase when more animals are transported. And according to the U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organization, the number of live pigs, goats, cows and sheep transported worldwide in 2017 was 30% higher than in 2007.
Here are just a few items of concern related to zoonotic pathogens:
-- Avian influenza, also known as bird flu or fowl plague, is caused by influenza virus A. Between 2014 and 2016, more than 50 million farmed birds, including chickens, turkeys and other poultry, were "depopulated" (killed) across more than a dozen states in an effort to contain a massive outbreak of the disease. The commonly used method of cutting off ventilation to kill the birds via heat-suffocation is neither humane nor acceptable.
-- Per the academic journal Science, last summer: "A strain of influenza virus called G4, which contains avian and mammalian influenza genes, is circulating in pigs in China and has the potential to mutate to spread readily among humans. The virus combines components of an H1N1 strain common in European and Asian birds, the H1N1 strain that caused a pandemic in 2009, and an H1N1 strain common in North America that itself combines genes from avian, swine and human influenza viruses." (See sciencemag.org for more.)
-- Richer communities and countries like the U.S., where pork, beef, dairy and poultry products are dietary staples, pay the environmental and public health costs of various zoonotic diseases. Antibiotic-resistant strains of E. coli, salmonella and other bacteria are an escalating problem due to inhumane factory-farming systems at home and abroad, which rely on giving animals antibiotics and other drugs to boost productivity and control diseases. According to a 2019 CDC report, "more than 2.8 million antibiotic-resistant infections occur in the U.S. each year, and more than 35,000 people die as a result."
-- Nitrate pollution of drinking water from animal waste/manure fertilizer is another escalating public health issue tied to factory-farm practices.
-- Beef and dairy cattle are the natural hosts for the bovine leukemia virus. Per the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service: "In the U.S., the most recent surveys indicate that 89% of dairy operations and 38% of beef operations had cattle seropositive for BLV. Currently, there are no federal regulations specific to curbing spread of (BLV) in the U.S. cattle population." It is therefore no surprise that this virus has been discovered in human blood, and was significantly associated with breast cancer in three case-control studies. (For more, see aphis.usda.gov and studies in the medical journals BMC Infectious Diseases and Microbial Pathogenesis.)
-- New research by the CDC calls hepatitis E an "emerging foodborne pathogen" that is transmitted to humans who eat raw or undercooked pork.
It has been my avocation and challenge as a veterinarian for nearly 60 years to heal the human-nonhuman animal bond at all levels of exploitation that are culturally condoned. I appeal to all consumers and governments to consider the impossibility of preventing these pandemics, and other animal-borne epidemics and regional outbreaks of disease, as long as the enormous scale of factory-farmed animal production is maintained worldwide.
We can choose to learn from all the suffering, death and economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and change how we live. This experience could catalyze a reduction in our collective exploitation and consumption of animals. Shifting to highly nutritious, organic, plant-based food production systems is both enlightened economics and a public health service. It will also help reduce climate change, which is a major threat to future food security and has been brought on, in part, by unsustainable agricultural practices.
(Send all mail to email@example.com or to Dr. Michael Fox in care of Andrews McMeel Syndication, 1130 Walnut St., Kansas City, MO 64106. The volume of mail received prohibits personal replies, but questions and comments of general interest will be discussed in future columns.
Visit Dr. Fox’s website at DrFoxOneHealth.com.)