The greed behind efforts to minimize farming production expenses has dehumanised animal farming to grotesque proportions. European standard for density of broilers (11 birds per m2) in “chicken factories” speaks for itself. Pigs spend their life in gestation crates lying on baren concrete, where they cannot even turn around - suffering constantly of imuno-suppressant stress, and cows are equally squeezed in overcrowded “milk factories”. It seems that the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE), established already in 1924 in Paris, and now having 182 member states, has little reason to be proud of its achievements over a century of its activities.

Also, as part of this organised and legalised animal cruelty, animals are receiving rather problematic, growth-enhancing food, with lots of antibiotics – keeping them fit and healthy, and primarily forcing them to grow rapidly. Unsurprisingly, due to being massively treated by antibiotics, they are kept healthy, but when we are consuming their meat, we are gradually becoming resistant to antibiotics. This happens in US annually to 2.8 million people, and over 35,000 of them die – meaning that every 15 minutes a patient dies with a normally curable infection. It is recognised that antibiotic resistance, as a consequence of industrial animal farming has become one of the largest public health challenges of our time.

The problems are more than serious, and it is a shame that governments are allowing this, and equally very regretful that so many people are much more interested in consuming cheap meat, eggs and milk, than thinking about the conditions in which poor animals are spending their lives. One cannot avoid the conclusion that the scenario for this state of affairs is written and effectively directed by big business, who is actually its only beneficiary. But fortunately, this drama cannot go on endlessly. Actually, some of the big players, like McDonald's, are starting to introduce some corrections, and the market will reward them, while for others, there will be lessons to be learned, and probably painful enough to push them in the right direction. Those slow and stubborn ones will pay the ultimate price – closure – which will be more than justified!

Undoubtedly energetic changes have to be introduced, and quickly. Governments and parliaments need to be more proactive. The proposal of Senator Cory Booker in the US (Democrat/New Jersey) to put a moratorium on the biggest factory farms after 2040 is an initiative in the right direction, but simply not radical enough.

Factory farms and antibiotics

According to Awaaz, a global web movement to bring people-powered politics to decision-making everywhere, every year 70 billion animals are raised in gruesome factory farms, pumped with powerful antibiotics to keep them fit and make them grow faster.

The September 2016 Political Declaration of the High-level Meeting on Antimicrobial Resistance called for the establishment of the ad-hoc Interagency Coordination Group on Antimicrobial Resistance (IACG), in consultation with the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE), and the World Health Organization (WHO). The IACG’s mandate is to provide practical guidance for approaches needed to ensure sustained effective global action to address antimicrobial resistance and to report back to the UN Secretary-General in 2019. In April 2019, UN, international agencies and experts released a groundbreaking report demanding immediate, coordinated and ambitious action to avert a potentially disastrous drug-resistance crisis. If no action is taken drug-resistant diseases could cause 10 million deaths each year by 2050, and damage to the economy as catastrophic as the 2008-2009 global financial crisis. Also, by 2030, antimicrobial resistance could force up to 24 million people into extreme poverty.

More and more common diseases, including respiratory tract infections, sexually transmitted infections and urinary tract infections, are untreatable; lifesaving medical procedures are becoming much riskier, and our food systems are increasingly precarious. Recognizing that human, animal, food and environmental health are closely interconnected, the report calls for a coordinated, multisectoral “One Health” approach. It recommends the following activities to be undertaken by countries:

  • prioritize national action plans to scale up financing and capacity-building efforts;
  • put in place stronger regulatory systems and support awareness programs for responsible and prudent use of antimicrobials by professionals in human, animal and plant health;
  • invest in ambitious research and development for new technologies to combat antimicrobial resistance;
  • urgently phase out the use of critically important antimicrobials as growth promoters in agriculture.

The report highlights the need for coordinated and intensive efforts to overcome antimicrobial resistance: a major barrier to the achievement of many of the UN Sustainable Development Goals, including universal health coverage, secure and safe food, sustainable farming systems and clean water and sanitation.

It is important that McDonald's - the world's largest beef purchaser – has recently announced a policy to reduce the overall use of antibiotics. According to the WHO, antibiotic resistance is one of the biggest threats to global health, food security, and development today. With the new policy, McDonald’s is helping to preserve the effectiveness of antibiotics for human and animal health in the future.

This latest announcement builds on fifteen years of progress since McDonald’s first developed a position on responsible antibiotics use in 2003. In 2016, McDonald’s USA reached its commitment to serve only chicken not treated with antibiotics important to human medicine, nearly one year ahead of schedule. Further, in 2017, McDonald’s announced an expanded antibiotics policy for chicken in markets around the world, as well as a refreshed Vision for Antimicrobial Stewardship statement with commitments to create responsible-use antibiotic approaches for beef, dairy beef and pork.

The meat we eat and the pandemic risk

For years, expert bodies like the World Health Organization have been warning that most emerging infectious diseases come from animals and that our industrialized farming practices are ratcheting up the risk. We know from past experience that farmed animals can lead to serious zoonotic diseases (those transmitted from animals to humans). To be clear, scientists believe the novel coronavirus originated in wild bats, not factory farms, or research labs. But it has awakened us all to the crushing effect a pandemic can have on our lives.

When we talk about the risk of pandemics, we are actually talking about two different types of outbreaks. The first is a viral pandemic and the second is a bacterial pandemic. Factory farming presents a risk in both these categories. The other pandemic risk associated with factory farms has to do with antibiotic resistance. When a new antibiotic is introduced, it can have great, even life-saving results for a while. But as we start to use and overuse antibiotics in the treatment of humans, crops, and animals, the bacteria evolve, with those that have a mutation to survive the antibiotic becoming more dominant. Gradually, the antibiotic becomes less effective, and we are left with a disease that we can no longer treat.

In fact, factory farming presents us with a double bacterial risk. Say a bacterial outbreak emerges among chickens. The poultry can pass that bacteria on to us humans, causing serious infection. We would normally then want to use antibiotics to treat that infection, but precisely because we have already overused antibiotics on our farmed animals, the bacteria may be resistant to the antibiotic. If the infection happens to be one that transmits well between people, we can end up with an untreatable bacterial pandemic.

Valentina Rizzi, an expert in disease at the EFSA, said: “The diseases transmitted directly or indirectly from animals – including livestock – to humans are called zoonoses. A big proportion of all infectious diseases in humans are originating from animals, and more specifically the majority of emerging new infections in humans in the last 10 years really come from animals or food of animal origin.”

The future

Food safety concerns and disease outbreaks are increasingly reported in the news. Thus, consumer demand in developed countries is slowing in favor of alternative milk, meats and other non-animal products. A report from RethinkX says: “In the US, by 2030, demand for cow products will have fallen by 70%. Before we reach this point, the US cattle industry will be effectively bankrupt. By 2035, demand for cow products will have shrunk by 80% to 90%. Other livestock markets such as chicken, pig, and fish will follow a similar trajectory.”

Despite the expected decline in the US, global meat consumption will actually go up, driven by increasing affluence in countries such as China and India. Meat and seafood consumption will rise 78% in Asia by 2050.

According to Chris Sworder, who analyses Agriculture & Food innovation for Cleantech Group, the three key areas of growth are :

  1. Digitalization of data: As with the fresh produce industry, what gets measured gets managed. Increasing quality and quantity of data in livestock systems has been a focus of startup innovation for some time, with companies such as HerdDogg, Cowlar and SmartBow all working on ear tags or neck collars to follow cattle movement in the field. Other competitors are focusing on in-barn solutions, such as Cainthus‘ stationary machine vision cameras or SomaDetect‘s sensor that is installed in the milking line itself. Each of these companies sells hardware and then provides a layer of data analytics and service, usually on a per head pricing model.

  2. Reduction of livestock emissions: Route 1 to reducing the environmental impact of livestock emissions is the undesirable choice to not farm livestock. Route 2 is to reduce livestock emissions. This is increasingly possible with feed additives that reduce enteric fermentation. According to the IPCC, enteric fermentation accounts for 27% of anthropogenic methane emissions and methane accounts for between 32% – 40% of agriculture’s greenhouse gas emissions. DSM, the Netherlands-based health and nutrition company, have developed a feed additive called 3NOP that works instantaneously; adding a quarter-teaspoon to feed can reduce livestock emissions by 30%. Mootral is developing a competitive product that reduces methane emissions using properties found naturally in citrus and garlic. Mootral’s business model differs in that the company has had its product verified by Verra, a developer of a private carbon offsetting marketplace. With this certification, Mootral’s product can offer the farmer a second revenue stream from selling the carbon credits associated with offsetting methane emissions.

  3. Improvements in waste handling: Livestock waste is a critical part of the agricultural system. Manure is used as fertilizer for crops and it is a source of fuel, either dried or in a biogas facility. However, the price of manure has not changed in sixty years while all other farm costs have increased ten times. This means farmers are now often paying to get rid of manure, rather than seeing it as a revenue stream. With 3.9 million livestock farms worldwide producing ten tons of manure per day, the total available market is worth $3.9 trillion. Negative environmental impacts are increasing, with over-application and soil retention of heavy metals poisoning agricultural soils and, in turn, polluting groundwater supplies. Cost alone is driving farmers to treat manure on-site, but regulatory pressure to clean up this aspect of the industry is growing in the EU and North America. One solution comes from Bluetector. The company has taken a typical municipal wastewater treatment technology and adapted it to handle the higher concentrations of nitrates that are present in manure. The circulation process and a proprietary bacteria dose are the inputs, while nitrogen gas and irrigation-safe water are the only outputs. Another solution comes from Livestock Water Recycling. The Canada-based company uses a filtration process to extract concentrated liquid potassium and ammonia, phosphorous and nitrogen-rich solids, and water.

Closing thoughts

It is not exaggerated to conclude that the degree of ruthless industrialisation of animal farming over the last century had escaped any level of sound reasoning, ethics, and social responsibility. The meat and milk we consume are actually so problematic that it is quite a miracle that we had to wait until 2020 to face the deadly pandemic of Covid-19, and consequently, reopen the debate about the damage and uncontrollable risk happening when industrial animal farming is using totally unreasonable levels of antibiotics which causes antimicrobial resistance first in animals, and then also in humans.

Fortunately, and with little contribution of government action, over the last few years, some encouraging steps can be registered. In the USA the powerful Food and Drugs Administration, FDA, has reported since 2016 some reductions in the purchase of antibiotics for animals (14% over the previous year). And this trend is expected to continue as McDonald's and Wendy’s have decided in 2018 to purchase beef primarily from producers who have reduced the use of antibiotics by at least 20%. This is a good example of corporate social responsibility, and one should hope that others will follow. The impact of this will be also indirect: namely, as burger consumers will be informed about this policy of burger kings, they will become more aware of the issue and will be influenced also in their other consumer activities. One can hope for the positive cumulative effects, involving also the farmers.

As mentioned, several leading economists are anticipating that producers who will continue ignoring the negative environmental and health consequences of modern industrial animal farming will soon start feeling strong pressure through the market, as people are increasingly becoming aware that ignoring sustainability is no option. And – rightfully so – those who will continue to behave as before will face collapses of their companies – a scenario nobody would like to experience.

It is rather depressing to observe that most governments play such a minimalistic, delayed, and reactive role in these important processes, particularly since they have at their disposal all the power, knowledge and implementation instruments – using all of them in a reasonable way would save globally millions of lives, and lots of unnecessary suffering by people and animals.

Additionally, by following a more consistent and effective policy, governments could save billions in avoidable costs and save these resources for other priority tasks in securing more sustainable public health, more responsible, competitive economies, and happier citizens.

An important response to industrial animal farming and agriculture are of course the many initiatives of “bio” and “eco” agriculture – which continues to grow in popularity, as people wish to reduce their dependence on industrially produced food and drinks. One of the future Briefs will provide an introduction to these activities and their increasing role in the modern world.

(Article prepared by the KEN Secretariat: prof. dr. Ajda Fošner and prof. dr. Boris Cizelj).

Sources used and further reading

T. Polansek, McDonald's to curb antibiotic use in its beef supply, 11 December 2018.
S. Samuel, The meat we eat is a pandemic risk, too, 20 August 2020.
C. Sworder, Livestock Farming in the Future: Clean, Green and On-Screen?, 16 April 2020.
Coronavirus: Industrial animal farming has caused most new infectious diseases and risks more pandemics, experts warn.
New report calls for urgent action to avert antimicrobial resistance crisis.
Using our Scale for Good: McDonald’s New Antibiotic Policy for Beef.