While factory farms are appalling for animals, they are not the only ones negatively affected by this intensive farming system. These facilities are also a huge problem for humans. Their effects, including outbreaks of disease, antibiotic resistance, and catastrophic environmental damage, have caused the deaths of many people around the world and have harmed the health and wellbeing of many communities.
WHAT IS FACTORY FARMING?
Factory farms are the most common way that animals are farmed. Animals are crammed together in a small space, with nothing natural and no way to express their natural behaviours. This leads to a variety of serious issues, not only for the animals and the environment, but also for the communities surrounding factory farms, the people that consume the finished products once the farmed animals’ bodies are processed, and for the whole of humanity.
HOW DOES FACTORY FARMING AFFECT HUMANS?
Often when we talk about factory farming the focus is on the billions of animals who are raised and slaughtered every year in industrial agriculture. However, factory farming also has serious consequences for humans — both on a local and on a global scale.
1. SUPERBUGS AND DISEASES
A zoonotic disease is one that spreads between animals and humans, and factory farms are hotspots for zoonotic disease transmission. Of the roughly 40 infectious diseases that have been discovered since the 1970s, more than 70 per cent have come from animals.
Factory farms play a key role in spreading bacterial infections. Not only are they the source of many disease-causing types of bacteria, they also encourage antibiotic resistance through the irresponsible use of these drugs. Most of the world’s antibiotics are used in factory farms as the farmers struggle to keep animals healthy enough to be profitable in the crowded, unhygienic, and stressful environment of factory farms. Of course, they could just improve conditions – or grow edible human crops instead – and we would not be facing this antibiotic crisis.
In 2009 and 2010, you couldn’t watch the evening news without seeing updates on the swine flu pandemic that was sweeping the globe. Swine flu, which claimed the lives of tens of thousands of people, originated on factory farms. The virus was the first of its kind, as it was a hybrid of bird virus, human virus, and pig virus. Factory farms are dangerous places in terms of viral pathogens.
Though the exact species that humans first contracted COVID-19 from is not known for sure, researchers agree that it likely originated from a wildlife market in China. While no animal should be sold for food, the broader public is swift to cite wild animal markets as a source of zoonotic diseases while remaining ignorant when it comes to the role that factory farms play.
A pandemic rages on, largely under the radar, on bird farms around the world. The deadly H5N1 virus is responsible for the slaughter of more than four million birds in the UK alone, and more than 140 million globally. The virus has also transferred to mammals, including humans. One of the major reasons that bird flu is able to spread so efficiently is because of factory farming and the conditions on farms that raise birds.
2. FOODBORNE ILLNESSES
Consuming the products from animals who were factory farmed can also lead to a variety of food-borne illnesses. This is in large part due to poor hygiene on factory farms and in slaughterhouses, allowing the spread of bacteria. Many types of food-borne illnesses can be contracted by coming into contact with, or consuming food that has come into contact with, the manure of an infected animal. Often, the manure from factory farms will be used as fertiliser and applied to fields being used to grow plant foods.
Salmonella can be found in the intestines of several species of animals kept on factory farms, including cows and pigs. The bacteria cause food poisoning which results in diarrhoea, vomiting, cramping, and fever.
Found in the guts of many farmed animals, Campylobacter bacteria can be ingested by consuming raw or undercooked meat or unpasteurised milk. Campylobacter causes food poisoning.
Escherichia coli, or E. coli for short, is most commonly found in the guts and faeces of cattle. If ingested, the bacteria can cause pain in the abdomen, bloody diarrhoea, and even kidney failure in severe cases.
3. ILLNESSES FROM ENVIRONMENTAL CONTAMINATION
Living near a factory farm can lead to severe illness due to the chemicals and waste that surrounding communities are exposed to.
One study of over 2,300 participants found that participants who lived near more farms raising animals had more abnormalities in their exhalations, indicating that their lung function was impaired. Further, the researchers showed that the impairments were worse during times when there was more ammonia being produced by the farms.
MISCARRIAGE AND CONGENITAL DISORDERS
Women in and around factory farms face additional risk when it comes to pregnancies. The chemicals, machinery, and bacteria that they are more likely to be exposed to have been associated with an increased risk of miscarriage and health risks for both the foetus and the mother.
4. PHYSICAL AND MENTAL IMPACTS ON WORKERS
Working on a factory farm is both physically and mentally taxing. Many of us will find it difficult to imagine a life where every day you get up to spend hours staring into the eyes of animals who have never known a moment of freedom or been able to engage in their natural behaviours, or mothers whose babies are taken from them mere hours after being born. This, however, is the reality for those who work on factory farms. In addition to the mental and emotional toll, the job is extremely dangerous. Employees are exposed to many dangers, not least the toxic gases from the waste the animals produce.
MENTAL HEALTH PROBLEMS
The physical and mental health of staff at factory farms are closely linked. Farmers and farmworkers have high self-reported rates of anxiety and depression, which are worse for women and animal farmers. Slaughterhouse work has long been recognised as leading to poor mental health outcomes and unhealthy coping mechanisms, including alcohol and drugs.
5. ANTIBIOTICS OVERLOAD
Antibiotics are frequently used on factory farms as a preventative measure instead of to treat an emerging disease. This practice is the driving force behind antibiotic resistance.
Concern has been increasing surrounding antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Once bacteria have become resistant to a particular antibiotic, novel or stronger antibiotics must be used to combat infections. Factory farms play a key role in furthering antibiotic resistance. In 2020, about 160,000 tons of antibiotics were given to farmed animals. In 2019, an estimated 1.2 million people died from antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
THE TRUTH ABOUT FACTORY FARMING
Not only is factory farming bad for us but it also leads to unjustifiable animal suffering and is rapidly destroying the environment. Here are just some of the shocking facts about factory farms and what they do to animals and the planet:
- The average caged egg-laying hen has less space than the area of a standard A4 sheet of paper. She cannot express her natural behaviours and is likely to suffer from broken bones due to the demand that laying eggs places on her body.
- A chicken raised for meat is likely to weigh over 2 kg when they are slaughtered at only six weeks of age. This size is the result of the extremely swift growth rate that has been bred into them over generations with no regard to the suffering that it causes.
- The male calves of dairy cows are the main source of veal. They are taken from their mothers mere hours after being born and often raised with insufficient nutrients because their paler flesh is considered desirable by consumers.
- More than 14 per cent of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions are the result of animal agriculture. Meanwhile, the excess waste produced by factory farms makes its way into waterways, killing wild animals.
Factory farms are at the root of some of the most critical public health crises of our time. Our choice to eat meat, dairy, and eggs is killing us and seriously damaging the environment too. With delicious fully vegan alternatives available for all of our favourite foods, there is no need to perpetuate the public health crisis that is factory farming.