This time we don’t have to get into the animal rights side of things, how cruel the factory farm system is to chickens, pigs, turkeys, and cows, forcing them to live on unnatural diets in overcrowded conditions that result in trampled animals and a disturbing reliance on antibiotics. Nor is this from a vegan or vegetarian point of view, which is to say this is not about whether or not people should eat meat, eggs, or dairy. Let’s just safely assume that’s going to continue.
This time we don’t need to look at the devastating environmental impact tied to factory farms: the need to grow huge chemically-swaddled monoculture fields of corn and soy, the clear-cutting involved in creating such fields, the food miles involved in shipping this animal feed around the world, the concentrations of animal manure (turning a valuable resource into a problem) that pollute freshwater sources, the stench that surrounds the death and faeces…
These issues have been explained time and time again, but like monoculture crop production, the industrial meat, egg, and dairy scheme continues. The planet suffers, the animals suffer, but the profits grow. Of course, without people to provide those profits, this wouldn’t be an issue. Without customers to buy mass-produced, overly processed bacon, burgers, and bratwursts, the factory farms would go bankrupt. So, rather than focusing on the planet or its animals, let’s look at how factory farms affect people.
Only, this time we aren’t going to look at how the modern food system has created a cocktail of everyday health problems for people: obesity, allergies, diabetes, cancer, and heart conditions. We aren’t going to look at the livelihoods of small farmers who have been bludgeoned, along with their animals, by food corporations. We aren’t going to look at the psychological effects on workers who spend their lives in slaughterhouses. We aren’t going to even think about how the destruction of the planet will ultimately spell doom for the human race.
This time we are going to look at what the factory farming system does to people in terms of pandemics. As COVID-19 has continued to cause severe problems all over the world, a rash of factory farms in the United States have been shut down, not because of all of the reasons listed above but because of their factory workers getting sick en masse. Of course, the companies didn’t do this voluntarily. The meat machine kept rolling until the evidence was so damning even the politicians who normally stand with them were demanding action.
The Smithfield pork factory in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, supplies some 5% of the United States’ pork. It didn’t shut down after dozens of its 3700 employees tested positive for COVID-19. When (privately on the phone) Republican Mayor Paul TenHaken implored Smithfield executives to act in order to calm the small community, they agreed to temporary close the facility for three days to clean it. Two days later, the number had surpassed 100 infected, so the mayor wrote a letter, which the governor endorsed, and the two made it public.
Smithfield finally shut the doors, with CEO Kevin Sullivan warning: “We have a stark choice as a nation: we are either going to produce food or not, even in the face of COVID-19.” He added that shutting down plants like this was “pushing our country perilously close to the edge in terms of meat supply.” The country’s meat supply will certainly feel the effects of big factories being shut down around the states, in Colorado, Pennsylvania, and Georgia, but does that warrant risking the lives of workers, their communities and, potentially, consumers?
While the work conditions and low pay for employees of meat packing plants has long been a “controversial” topic, which is to say recognised as being unjust but preferably ignored, COVID-19 has illustrated the other problems within the system. These massive centralised supply chains are apparently not built to withstand pandemics without either sacrificing the exploited workforce (and the ripple effect of that) or the national meat production for a population unable to feed themselves without it.
On the other hand, the dairy industry has so much excess that thousands of gallons of milk are being literally dumped down the drain every day to control the supply rather than nourish hungry people. Over 20 million people filed for unemployment in a three-week span in the US, and in normal circumstance nearly 40 million in the US rely on food banks and meal programs to feed themselves. However, with the “demand” for milk weakened due to cafeteria closures, the answer is not to use it but to dump it.
The fact of the matter is that this isn’t an unheard-of situation. Milk surpluses have happened before, many times, with the same result. As people struggle to find food, the government diverts money to the dairy industry, buying up excesses of unwanted milk and cheese (a process with a long history that continues today) rather than to actually feeding people. In other words, the dairy side of factory farms is lining up yet again for an industry bailout as the government fails to help small businesses and hungry people, now with a pandemic putting on the pressure.
Perhaps, though, the most prominent aspect of pandemics and industrial meat production is the origin of this onslaught of zoonotic illnesses. While COVID-19 is being pinned on bats and pangolins thus far, factory farms have certainly been guilty: avian flu (H7N9), swine flu (H1N1), and mad cow disease (CJD). Animals in poor health cooped up in unsanitary, confined spaces in close contact with other unhealthy animals fed questionable food (mad cow was spread by cows eating other infected cows in their feed) create a petri dish in which diseases can thrive.
The exotic animals in wet markets, like where COVID-19 is said to have originated, are just an extension of the conditions in factory farms. The mix of “wild” animals are often raised on specialty farms, kept live in cages, and slaughtered with the same equipment, passing diseases between species. Essentially, these markets use the same artificial CAFO method for selling their so-called exotic meat. The conditions, just as in factory farms, are ripe for spreading disease and building problems into pandemics.
So, if we don’t do it for the animals, which are horribly mistreated in the factory farms… if we don’t do it for the sake of the planet, all those lost lots of forest and those polluted waterways, all the fertility turned fiasco, the food miles and animal feed and everything else… if we don’t do it for the workers, who are suffering from poor conditions and low pay… if we don’t do it for the consumers who are riddled with now run-of-the-mill health problems… if none of those things matter enough, perhaps the promise and proficiency of more pandemics will. How many times does it need to happen before we adjust the design?