Factory Farming Threatens Public Health
Last week, over 200 experts in public health, medicine, environmental science, ethics, and more joined together to call on the next Director General of the World Health Organization to prioritize factory farming. These experts range from Peter Singer to Mark Bittman, Noam Chomsky to Marion Nestle. Even as WHO confronts emerging epidemics, the threat of factory farming looms large on global health. The importance of this threat is illustrated by the variety of expert disciplines arriving at the same conclusion: we must reduce and regulate factory farming.
As the WHO considers this letter, U.S. policymakers should take note: factory farming exerts a large toll on U.S. health. While debates rage around the American Health Care Act, few policymakers consider the impact that high meat consumption and the industrialization of animal farming has on the public. Mitigating this threat is critical to three enormous health and environmental challenges: antibiotic resistance, chronic diseases, and climate change.
Every year, at least 2 million people in the United States become infected and 23,000 die from antibiotic resistant bacteria - nearly as large a burden as car crash deaths. In the U.S. and EU, over 75 percent of all antibiotics used in the U.S. and EU are used in agriculture. That includes the indiscriminate application of antibiotics in animal feed, or “disease prevention” antibiotics, which are intended to reduce the spread of disease and promote animal growth. Unfortunately, the evidence shows that this use achieves neither purpose while drastically increasing the growth of antibiotic resistant bacteria. These bacteria then enter the environment through animal waste and our supermarkets through the animal products we eat. The risks of these practices are stark and global in nature: if current trends continue, diseases caused by drug-resistant microbes could kill up to 9.5 million per year worldwide by 2050, more than current cancer-deaths. Unfortunately, we can’t seal our borders off from bacteria.
High meat consumption has been shown to increase risks for several types of cancer, stroke, obesity, cardiovascular mortality, lung disease and diabetes. In the United States, the consumption of red and processed meats contributed to nearly 50,000 deaths in 2015. This figure doesn’t account for the impact that high meat consumption has on crowding out fruit, vegetable, and whole grain consumption, which kills hundreds of thousands of Americans every year. As chronic diseases account for an increasing proportion of deaths, we will need to work harder to ensure healthy diets - and that must include curbing our meat consumption. Unfortunately, U.S. dietary agencies have heeded the power of industry lobbyists and constructed dietary guidelines that largely ignore the health risks associated with meat consumption.
Despite the fact that dietary guidelines have long been neglected as a tool to shift consumer habits, the U.S. has one sign of optimism. Innovative companies such as Hampton Creek and the Good Food Institute are developing alternatives to meat and dairy. Depending on the pace of technological progress on these products, U.S. consumers may be able to still enjoy the taste of meat and dairy with significantly less harm to health, environment, and animal welfare.
Lastly, as President Obama pointed out recently, meat consumption is one of the largest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions and climate change. Experts predict that without urgent and drastic shifts in global meat consumption, agriculture will consume half the world’s carbon budget necessary for keeping global temperature rises under 2° Celsius by 2050. And developed countries like the U.S bear the brunt of the responsibility for this consumption: although meat consumption is certainly rising in developing countries, the U.S. alone accounts for nearly 13 percent of global beef, pork, and poultry consumption. The inefficient, resource-intensive process of growing meat means that it uses more oil, water, and other scarce resources. On top of this, deforestation from meat consumption means that we are depleting one of our most important tools for mitigating the long-term health impacts of climate change.
Multilateral institutions like the WHO must address factory farming. But without leadership from countries, we will not be able to limit the harms that this industry presents. Just as the United States has successfully confronted tobacco and other industries that hurt society, we must now confront factory farming.
Scott Weathers is an MSc candidate at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Sophie Hermanns is a PhD Candidate at Cambridge University and a visiting fellow at Harvard University.