Op-ed: Will factory farming be the springboard for an avian flu pandemic?

Four years ago, as COVID-19 gathered steam, I wrote an article titled “Reducing pandemic risk begins with ending factory farming.” But here we are again. Avian flu is raging throughout the country, having jumped the species barrier from birds to mammals, even killing cats and showing up in cows’ milk. Yet the potential for a new human pandemic, should the disease find its way from other mammals to us, is only casually tossed around. Such a jump from animals to people has happened more than once, with COVID and other diseases, including avian flu.

As recently as March 25, health authorities reported an avian flu outbreak among dairy cows in multiple states—a first. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has determined that a person infected with HPAI A(H5N1), the avian flu virus, had been exposed to infected cows at a Texas dairy, a possible first transmission of the virus from other mammals to humans. 

This shouldn’t surprise us. Adapt, multiply, and mutate is what viruses do. How baffling that we recognize industrial animal agriculture as a likely springboard for another pandemic yet don’t do nearly enough to stop the threat.  

Have we learned nothing?  

I know how angry I’d feel if my children were again cut off from their education, if I couldn’t see my family and friends, if the magnitude of global disruption, suffering, death, and fear we’d endured with COVID repeated itself, knowing we could have prevented it. 

To say factory farms are hot spots for disease and the likely catalyst of the next global pandemic is no exaggeration. The article “Industrial food animal production and global health risks: exploring the ecosystems and economics of avian influenza” explores how many emerging infectious diseases in humans are zoonotic, in that most of them transferred to humans from domesticated animals raised for food. At factory farms, the animals are packed together and moved through various production stages, which presents myriad opportunities for masses of chickens, pigs, and other animals to come into contact with one another. This creates what the authors coin a “unique ecosystem” in which the rise of new zoonotic pathogens is more likely. 

Even if factory farms were not the source, they could certainly be the precipice. In these dark, dank, overcrowded warehouses disease spreads rapidly from animal to animal. The humans who pass in and out of these spaces are often also stressed and exhausted, their own immune systems at risk. Even with the best personal protective gear in place, disease has still found its way out.

The animals are in poor health, stressed, and bred only to survive from farm to slaughterhouse. They are far from robust and resistant, which makes them pathogenic time bombs. 

If we needed a sign that it was time to change our animal farming practices, COVID was it. COVID raced relentlessly through factory farms and slaughterhouses. These places do more than jeopardize the animals’ health and risk disease transmission from flocks and herds to humans. Driven by an industry that prioritizes maximum production and profit over all else, they force workers to stand close together on exhaustingly fast assembly and slaughter lines, promoting disease spread among them. But this avian flu outbreak is our second chance—maybe even our last—to end factory farming for our own sake. Will we save ourselves before it’s too late?

Policymakers have an opportunity and a moral obligation to consider the threats of factory farming in the upcoming Farm Bill. Their need to take action is urgent, as scientists say that the next zoonotic pandemic is not a question of if, but of when.  What more will it take for us to listen and change our food system?

My organization, Mercy For Animals, is on a mission to do just that. Join us.

Leah Garcés is the CEO and president of Mercy For Animals and author of Grilled: Turning Adversaries into Allies to Change the Chicken Industry; with more than 20 years of leadership experience in the animal protection movement, she has partnered with corporations, communities, and governments on her mission to build a better food system.

Mercy For Animals is a leading international nonprofit working to end industrial animal agriculture by constructing a just and sustainable food system. Active in Brazil, Canada, India, Mexico, and the United States, the organization has conducted more than 100 investigations of factory farms and slaughterhouses, influenced more than 500 corporate policies, and helped pass historic legislation to ban cages for farmed animals. Join us at MercyForAnimals.org