Originally published: The New York Times
This week, the World Health Organization — which works globally to improve human health — will meet in Geneva to select a new director general. We have a mission for that leader: take on factory farms, a major threat to health and the environment.
Starting just after World War II, animal production in the United States became increasingly industrialized. Factory-like farms radically increased the number of cows, chickens and pigs they could raise and slaughter with economic efficiency. This is one reason meat consumption rose sharply in the United States after the war. So, too, worldwide, meat production has tripled over the last four decades and increased 20 percent in just the last 10 years, according to research by the Worldwatch Institute, an environmental research group.
This sweeping change in meat production and consumption has had grave consequences for our health and environment, and these problems will grow only worse if current trends continue.
Taking on this public health issue is well within the W.H.O.’s mandate. Addressing last year’s World Health Assembly, Margaret Chan, the organization’s departing director general, called antibiotic-resistant microbes, climate change and chronic diseases “three slow-motion disasters” shaping the global health landscape. Factory farming connects the dots among them.
The flood of inexpensive meat and dairy products has substantially contributed to the growing incidence of chronic diseases. The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington has estimated that over half a million deaths worldwide in 2015 were linked to diets high in processed and red meat, which the W.H.O. now classifies as carcinogenic and “probably carcinogenic,” respectively.
A potentially greater problem is superbugs, the antibiotic-resistant bacteria that proliferate among confined animals in factory farms. About 75 percent of the antibiotics used in the United States and the European Union countries are used in agriculture. The indiscriminate use of these drugs is aimed at preventing illness among animals at these densely packed farms and speeding up their growth, which has proved largely unsuccessful.
As a result of this widespread use, humans unwittingly consume antibiotics in low doses from the meat we eat and the treated water we drink from waterways polluted by animal waste. As bacteria develop resistance to antibiotics, many may soon be rendered powerless even against maladies like pneumonia or urinary tract infections.
The impact of factory farms on climate change is also profound. These operations generate more greenhouse gas emissions than all forms of transportation combined.
Factoring in increases in world population, a 2014 study in the journal Climatic Change found that food-related greenhouse gas emissions may take up most of the world’s remaining carbon budget – or the amount of greenhouse gases that can still be emitted and keep global temperatures in 2050 to no more than 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) above preindustrial levels. Dietary changes that involve reduced meat and dairy consumption “are crucial for meeting” the 2050 temperature target “with high probability,” the study concluded.
Another 2014 study in Britian found that meat eaters were responsible for twice the greenhouse gas emissions of people on plant-based diets. And recent studies calculated that if health guidelines on meat consumption were followed worldwide, food-related greenhouse gas emissions could be reduced by 29 percent to 45 percent. Of course, this would require major changes in food systems.
But national and global campaigns have battled big public health threats before, even when those threats were backed by corporate multinationals. One example is the W.H.O.’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, an international treaty promoting antismoking policies among the participating countries. The W.H.O. can take a similar approach toward factory farms.
An open letter released this week and signed by over 200 scientists, policy experts and others, including ourselves, urges the candidates for the office of director general to recognize and address factory farming as a public health challenge. The signatories make a series of policy recommendations. Among them, the W.H.O. should encourage its nearly 200 member nations to:
- Ban the use of growth-promoting antibiotics in animal farming and provide incentives to meat producers to dispose of antibiotics and animal waste in ways that prevent environmental contamination.
- Stop subsidizing factory farming.
- Adopt nutrition standards and implement education campaigns that warn of the health risks of meat consumption.
- Finance research into plant-based alternatives to meat.
- The harms factory farming causes are global in nature: Bacteria resistant to antibiotics do not recognize borders, nor does climate change, and health care systems everywhere will struggle to meet the challenges of rising chronic diseases.
Eating animals may have been crucial to our survival in the past. But now, it’s killing us.