A group of U.S. senators from both sides of the aisle recently signed a letter calling on Chinese officials to close the country’s wet markets. The senators’ letter reads in part:
It is well documented that wet markets in China have been the source of a number of worldwide health problems, and their operation should cease immediately so as to protect the Chinese people and the international community from additional health risks.
This letter joins a similar one, signed by more than 60 U.S. senators and representatives, requesting that the World Health Organization, the World Organisation for Animal Health, and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations issue a global ban on wild animal markets and international trade in live wild animals. Meanwhile, numerous celebrities, including Paul McCartney and Ricky Gervais, have called for wet markets to be shut down. This begs the question: What exactly are wet markets and what do they have in common with factory farms?
Wet markets are so named because they offer perishable foods, like fruit and vegetables, whereas “dry markets” offer only nonperishable products, like grains and household goods. Some wet markets also have live animals, who are often slaughtered in front of customers. These markets can be extremely crowded and usually feature long rows of outdoor stalls set up side by side. With so many different animals, both living and dead, and humans all very close together, the conditions are perfect for zoonotic pathogens (animal-borne pathogens that can infect humans) to develop, spread, and cause disease.
The virus behind COVID-19, which has infected more than 2 million people all over the world, is thought to have originated in a wet market called the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan, China. Similarly, the 2003 SARS outbreak was traced back to a wet market in China’s Guangdong province. The virus killed over 770 people in 29 countries.
While calling for drastic changes in wet markets is a good thing, these markets are far from the only places where zoonoses have originated. In the United States and around the world, animals raised for food are kept in filthy, crowded conditions, often without fresh air or sunlight. Neurologist and public health specialist Aysha Akhtar warns of the dangers of factory farms:
The conditions on these farms greatly contribute to the creation of deadly pathogens, including influenza viruses.
It is shortsighted for us to criticize live animal markets in China while not also examining and rethinking industrialized animal farming around the globe.
In the 1980s and 1990s, for example, tens of thousands of cows in the U.K. were infected with a pathogen that caused bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or “mad cow” disease. In an attempt to stop the spread of the disease, 4.4 million cows were killed. Yet meat from infected cattle entered the food supply, and the pathogen caused a similar fatal disease in many humans who had eaten contaminated meat. Since the human form of “mad cow,” variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, emerged in 1996, 229 people have died.
In spring 2009, a novel H1N1 influenza, known as “swine flu,” was detected in North America. The unique genetic makeup of this H1N1 strain was likely due to the intercontinental transport of live pigs. The new virus circulated among farmed pigs in Mexico before it jumped to humans and triggered a global pandemic. During the first year of the pandemic, scientists estimate, between 151,700 and 575,400 people died as a result of the virus.
Filthy, crowded, and stressful, factory farms are breeding grounds for disease, and industrial animal agriculture presents a persistent threat to public safety. Knowing this, shouldn’t U.S. lawmakers also question the role factory farms could play in future pandemics?
And the problem isn’t limited to those pathogens capable of infecting humans. Diseases that affect only animals can be devastating for farmers and tragic for the animals, who are killed en masse to stop the spread of a disease, often in horrible ways.
In 2015, an outbreak of avian flu in the United States resulted in the deaths of nearly 50 million chickens. Because factory farms keep animals in such cramped, moist conditions, disease can spread like wildfire. Although influenza infections are often mild at first, the speed at which a virus can spread through factory-farmed birds can lead to more lethal mutations.
Just last week, the USDA confirmed that a highly pathogenic H7N3 avian influenza was detected in a turkey flock in South Carolina. Our farming industry is in crisis, and we need to act fast to repair our unhealthy relationship with animals around the world.
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