Why factory farms are a "perfect storm" for disease pandemics

We've known this virus was coming. We just didn't do anything about it.

chicken farm
Photo: Shutterstock
  • As far back as 2007, researchers warned about a novel coronavirus emerging from SARS.
  • Long before that, experts knew that factory farms create the conditions for pandemics.
  • Pandemics will be part of our lives as long as we continue our current methods of meat production.

In 2007, a team of researchers at The University of Hong Kong published a review warning of potential dangers of SARS-related coronaviruses emerging in the near future. Four years after the SARS outbreak of 2003 the team poured over a sampling of over 4,000 publications that had reported on the crisis. They wanted to understand the conditions that might lead to another outbreak. This paragraph is worth pointing out:

"Coronaviruses are well known to undergo genetic recombination, which may lead to new genotypes and outbreaks. The presence of a large reservoir of SARS-CoV-like viruses in horseshoe bats, together with the culture of eating exotic mammals in southern China, is a time bomb. The possibility of the re-emergence of SARS and other novel viruses from animals or laboratories and therefore the need for preparedness should not be ignored."

A common sentiment when disaster strikes: we had no idea it was coming. Often, we have plenty of warning. We just don't pay attention.

While the spotlight of COVID-19 has been on a live animal market in Wuhan, perhaps we should be paying attention to a much larger issue, one that has been staring us in the face for decades: factory farms.

Honing in on China defeats the larger point. The influenza pandemic of 1918-19, which has gotten so much press of late, originated in Kansas, yet we don't hear other nations demanding retribution; the same goes for 2009's Swine Flu outbreak (thanks North Carolina!). Pandemics are linked not by geography, but by a singular human desire: our love for cheap meat.

The word "virus" comes from the Latin for "toxin," coined by Dutch botanist Martinus Beijernick while studying tobacco plants. He observed an agent even smaller than bacteria decimating the species. Blow up a virus to the size of a tennis ball and a human would have to be 500 miles tall. (A bacterium would be a beach ball.) Decades later, British biologist Peter Medawar called a virus "a piece of bad news wrapped up in a protein." They long predate and will long outlast us.

A virus isn't even alive. It is inert until it enters an animal, such as us. Viruses also aren't particularly picky: if they can affect a species, they will. If that means passing over into other species, great—survival of the fittest and all that. Humans have always been prey to viruses but pandemics are relatively new. They only began when the conditions were right, when tribes began merging into cities and animal domestication commenced. Crowded fields of animals commingling with large human populations is the original recipe for disaster.

Small farms are bad enough, but factory farms, in the words of Michael Greger, author of Bird Flu: A Virus of Our Own Hatching, are a "perfect storm environment." He continues:

"If you actually want to create global pandemics, then build factory farms."

Greger was cited by Paul Shapiro, author of Clean Meat, who we spoke with in 2017. Speculating on a future in which laboratory-grown meat is generated from pluripotent cells from animals, he said,

"We don't know what some unintended consequences might be but it's hard to imagine that there will be anything like the tremendous downsides to continuing to raise and slaughter tens of billions of animals for food globally."

Systems work until they don't. Right now, the very factory farms in question are experiencing an existential crisis. Thanks to COVID-19 their demand has increased, creating even more stressful working conditions than normal. Tragically, some manufacturers aren't offering sick pay, and as you might have guessed, employees are showing up to work ill. From New York City to Mississippi to South Dakota, workers are testing positive for the novel coronavirus. What happens to our meat supply when these farms can no longer supply the meat we demand? How do we battle an addiction when the dealers are sick?

Systems work until they don't, then they collapse. Not with a whimper but a bang.

cows in a milking parlour

Cows in a milking parlour on a large farm. The cows are milked by milking machine twice a day on April 24, 2019 in Verkhniy Ikorets, Russia.

Photo by Ute Grabowsky/Photothek via Getty Images

A few years ago, public health expert Larry Brilliant stopped by the Big Think office to discuss the most pressing issues facing humanity if a pandemic were to occur. He offered two: the diseases that ravage our biology, and more importantly, our preparation to combat those diseases. Brilliant was especially concerned in regards to the second.

"We have a White House which would almost reflexly discard anything that has the word 'public' in it, and one of those words is 'public health.' And they have not shown a keen interest in pandemics. The whole idea of 'America First,' which might be good for many things, is singularly not good for a global pandemic."

Brilliant says we've had 30 to 40 diseases, almost all of which are viruses, that jump from animals to humans at a rate of roughly one a year. The number is increasing—not catastrophically, he says, at least not yet. The reason for concern? Humans and animals living in such close proximity due to clear-cutting of forests and factory farms. This proximity is creating a "natural virus experiment."

How to stop this experiment? We have to curb our enthusiasm for meat. Eating less of it, sure, and being more discerning about where you source meat. Words like "natural" don't mean anything on a package; even "free range" is suspect. Knowing your farmer is important. Or, as Shapiro advocates, the emerging market of "clean meat," which is actual meat cultured in laboratories. A consumer-priced burger isn't there yet, but we're getting closer.

We can also add vegetarian and flexitarian arguments here. Yet I'm wary of recent vegan arguments that humans were not designed to eat meat. You can't rewrite history—humans are humans thanks in part to our consumption of meat, as thinkers such as Daniel Lieberman and Richard Wrangham have pointed out. We can—and should—argue about the future, but let us at least understand where we come from.

One thing is certain: stopping this virus experiment will require seriously rethinking the system that's creating it. At least the next time someone asks, "how could this have happened?," tell them we already know the answer. We've known it for generations. What we do about it moving forward is the story we've yet to write.


Stay in touch with Derek on Twitter and Facebook. His next book is "Hero's Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy."

This is what aliens would 'hear' if they flew by Earth

A Mercury-bound spacecraft's noisy flyby of our home planet.

Image source: sdecoret on Shutterstock/ESA/Big Think
Surprising Science
  • There is no sound in space, but if there was, this is what it might sound like passing by Earth.
  • A spacecraft bound for Mercury recorded data while swinging around our planet, and that data was converted into sound.
  • Yes, in space no one can hear you scream, but this is still some chill stuff.

First off, let's be clear what we mean by "hear" here. (Here, here!)

Sound, as we know it, requires air. What our ears capture is actually oscillating waves of fluctuating air pressure. Cilia, fibers in our ears, respond to these fluctuations by firing off corresponding clusters of tones at different pitches to our brains. This is what we perceive as sound.

All of which is to say, sound requires air, and space is notoriously void of that. So, in terms of human-perceivable sound, it's silent out there. Nonetheless, there can be cyclical events in space — such as oscillating values in streams of captured data — that can be mapped to pitches, and thus made audible.


Image source: European Space Agency

The European Space Agency's BepiColombo spacecraft took off from Kourou, French Guyana on October 20, 2019, on its way to Mercury. To reduce its speed for the proper trajectory to Mercury, BepiColombo executed a "gravity-assist flyby," slinging itself around the Earth before leaving home. Over the course of its 34-minute flyby, its two data recorders captured five data sets that Italy's National Institute for Astrophysics (INAF) enhanced and converted into sound waves.

Into and out of Earth's shadow

In April, BepiColombo began its closest approach to Earth, ranging from 256,393 kilometers (159,315 miles) to 129,488 kilometers (80,460 miles) away. The audio above starts as BepiColombo begins to sneak into the Earth's shadow facing away from the sun.

The data was captured by BepiColombo's Italian Spring Accelerometer (ISA) instrument. Says Carmelo Magnafico of the ISA team, "When the spacecraft enters the shadow and the force of the Sun disappears, we can hear a slight vibration. The solar panels, previously flexed by the Sun, then find a new balance. Upon exiting the shadow, we can hear the effect again."

In addition to making for some cool sounds, the phenomenon allowed the ISA team to confirm just how sensitive their instrument is. "This is an extraordinary situation," says Carmelo. "Since we started the cruise, we have only been in direct sunshine, so we did not have the possibility to check effectively whether our instrument is measuring the variations of the force of the sunlight."

When the craft arrives at Mercury, the ISA will be tasked with studying the planets gravity.

Magentosphere melody

The second clip is derived from data captured by BepiColombo's MPO-MAG magnetometer, AKA MERMAG, as the craft traveled through Earth's magnetosphere, the area surrounding the planet that's determined by the its magnetic field.

BepiColombo eventually entered the hellish mangentosheath, the region battered by cosmic plasma from the sun before the craft passed into the relatively peaceful magentopause that marks the transition between the magnetosphere and Earth's own magnetic field.

MERMAG will map Mercury's magnetosphere, as well as the magnetic state of the planet's interior. As a secondary objective, it will assess the interaction of the solar wind, Mercury's magnetic field, and the planet, analyzing the dynamics of the magnetosphere and its interaction with Mercury.

Recording session over, BepiColombo is now slipping through space silently with its arrival at Mercury planned for 2025.

Learn the Netflix model of high-performing teams

Erin Meyer explains the keeper test and how it can make or break a team.

  • There are numerous strategies for building and maintaining a high-performing team, but unfortunately they are not plug-and-play. What works for some companies will not necessarily work for others. Erin Meyer, co-author of No Rules Rules: Netflix and the Culture of Reinvention, shares one alternative employed by one of the largest tech and media services companies in the world.
  • Instead of the 'Rank and Yank' method once used by GE, Meyer explains how Netflix managers use the 'keeper test' to determine if employees are crucial pieces of the larger team and are worth fighting to keep.
  • "An individual performance problem is a systemic problem that impacts the entire team," she says. This is a valuable lesson that could determine whether the team fails or whether an organization advances to the next level.
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Photo by Martin Adams on Unsplash
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