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.

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.

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

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New research establishes an unexpected connection.

Reactive oxygen species (ROS) accumulate in the gut of sleep-deprived fruit flies, one (left), seven (center) and ten (right) days without sleep.

Image source: Vaccaro et al, 2020/Harvard Medical School
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We don't have to tell you what it feels like when you don't get enough sleep. A night or two of that can be miserable; long-term sleeplessness is out-and-out debilitating. Though we know from personal experience that we need sleep — our cognitive, metabolic, cardiovascular, and immune functioning depend on it — a lack of it does more than just make you feel like you want to die. It can actually kill you, according to study of rats published in 1989. But why?

A new study answers that question, and in an unexpected way. It appears that the sleeplessness/death connection has nothing to do with the brain or nervous system as many have assumed — it happens in your gut. Equally amazing, the study's authors were able to reverse the ill effects with antioxidants.

The study, from researchers at Harvard Medical School (HMS), is published in the journal Cell.

An unexpected culprit

The new research examines the mechanisms at play in sleep-deprived fruit flies and in mice — long-term sleep-deprivation experiments with humans are considered ethically iffy.

What the scientists found is that death from sleep deprivation is always preceded by a buildup of Reactive Oxygen Species (ROS) in the gut. These are not, as their name implies, living organisms. ROS are reactive molecules that are part of the immune system's response to invading microbes, and recent research suggests they're paradoxically key players in normal cell signal transduction and cell cycling as well. However, having an excess of ROS leads to oxidative stress, which is linked to "macromolecular damage and is implicated in various disease states such as atherosclerosis, diabetes, cancer, neurodegeneration, and aging." To prevent this, cellular defenses typically maintain a balance between ROS production and removal.

"We took an unbiased approach and searched throughout the body for indicators of damage from sleep deprivation," says senior study author Dragana Rogulja, admitting, "We were surprised to find it was the gut that plays a key role in causing death." The accumulation occurred in both sleep-deprived fruit flies and mice.

"Even more surprising," Rogulja recalls, "we found that premature death could be prevented. Each morning, we would all gather around to look at the flies, with disbelief to be honest. What we saw is that every time we could neutralize ROS in the gut, we could rescue the flies." Fruit flies given any of 11 antioxidant compounds — including melatonin, lipoic acid and NAD — that neutralize ROS buildups remained active and lived a normal length of time in spite of sleep deprivation. (The researchers note that these antioxidants did not extend the lifespans of non-sleep deprived control subjects.)

fly with thought bubble that says "What? I'm awake!"

Image source: Tomasz Klejdysz/Shutterstock/Big Think

The experiments

The study's tests were managed by co-first authors Alexandra Vaccaro and Yosef Kaplan Dor, both research fellows at HMS.

You may wonder how you compel a fruit fly to sleep, or for that matter, how you keep one awake. The researchers ascertained that fruit flies doze off in response to being shaken, and thus were the control subjects induced to snooze in their individual, warmed tubes. Each subject occupied its own 29 °C (84F) tube.

For their sleepless cohort, fruit flies were genetically manipulated to express a heat-sensitive protein in specific neurons. These neurons are known to suppress sleep, and did so — the fruit flies' activity levels, or lack thereof, were tracked using infrared beams.

Starting at Day 10 of sleep deprivation, fruit flies began dying, with all of them dead by Day 20. Control flies lived up to 40 days.

The scientists sought out markers that would indicate cell damage in their sleepless subjects. They saw no difference in brain tissue and elsewhere between the well-rested and sleep-deprived fruit flies, with the exception of one fruit fly.

However, in the guts of sleep-deprived fruit flies was a massive accumulation of ROS, which peaked around Day 10. Says Vaccaro, "We found that sleep-deprived flies were dying at the same pace, every time, and when we looked at markers of cell damage and death, the one tissue that really stood out was the gut." She adds, "I remember when we did the first experiment, you could immediately tell under the microscope that there was a striking difference. That almost never happens in lab research."

The experiments were repeated with mice who were gently kept awake for five days. Again, ROS built up over time in their small and large intestines but nowhere else.

As noted above, the administering of antioxidants alleviated the effect of the ROS buildup. In addition, flies that were modified to overproduce gut antioxidant enzymes were found to be immune to the damaging effects of sleep deprivation.

The research leaves some important questions unanswered. Says Kaplan Dor, "We still don't know why sleep loss causes ROS accumulation in the gut, and why this is lethal." He hypothesizes, "Sleep deprivation could directly affect the gut, but the trigger may also originate in the brain. Similarly, death could be due to damage in the gut or because high levels of ROS have systemic effects, or some combination of these."

The HMS researchers are now investigating the chemical pathways by which sleep-deprivation triggers the ROS buildup, and the means by which the ROS wreak cell havoc.

"We need to understand the biology of how sleep deprivation damages the body so that we can find ways to prevent this harm," says Rogulja.

Referring to the value of this study to humans, she notes,"So many of us are chronically sleep deprived. Even if we know staying up late every night is bad, we still do it. We believe we've identified a central issue that, when eliminated, allows for survival without sleep, at least in fruit flies."

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