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Intended Strategy of Opponents to Intensive Livestock Production


The recent Taking Action For Animals Conference (TAFA) held virtually on September 19th and 20th provided an insight into the strategy to be employed by the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) and kindred organizations in future opposition to intensive livestock production.  In an October 2020 report circulated by the Animal Agriculture Alliance, it is clear that activists will capitalize on current public concern over COVID-19. HSUS and other organizations that oppose animal agriculture and promote a vegan agenda are adept at manipulating outbreaks of human disease and current public concerns to promote their cause.


In past years, HSUS has unjustifiably criticized commercial livestock agriculture for propagating animal diseases and increasing the risk of foodborne infections. In a departure from past claims Adam Zipkin, Counsel to U.S. senator Cory Booker (D-NJ.) stated, “Factory farms poison our environment. Factory farms create serious risks to public health.” He added without substantiation that “scientists are telling us in no uncertain terms that  the next pandemic is at least as likely to start on a factory farm here in the U.S. as it is at a wildlife market in some other country”. This is factually incorrect and unlikely since it is an epidemiologic reality that emerging viral infections including Ebola, Nipah disease, SARS, MERS and COVID had their origin in wildlife populations. The HSUS is providing a new twist to their ongoing opposition to meat consumption by suggesting that concentrated animal feeding operations serve as a potential source of new human diseases.


Zipkin also categorically implicated “rampant use of antibiotics in factory farms” as a factor responsible for the emergence of novel infections. Antibiotics do not act against viruses and as a counsel to a Senator, Zipkin should be aware of the statutory restrictions placed on the use of antibiotics by the Food and Drug Administration, effective January 1st 2017.


Without specifying diseases, Zipkin asserted that intensive agricultural operations are “breeding grounds for viruses, such as influenza, that can easily jump from farm animals to people.”  Although there is some justification for this statement, there is no specific example of an influenza pandemic originating directly from livestock.  Even the 1997 avian influenza H5N1 panornitic in China and Southeast Asia was responsible for only a limited number of cases relative to the extent of the infection in poultry and the exposure of individuals on farms and through the wet market distribution system in 50 nations.


Speakers at the virtual TAFA conference pointed to the prevalence of COVID-19 among workers in meat plants.  There was no evidence that workers acquired infection from the product handled. The high incidense rates from late February through April can be attributed to the proximity of workers, defective ventilation systems in plants, absence of personal protective equipment and failure to introduce test and isolation programs.  Predictably, speakers at the TAFA conference were eager to draw leap-of-faith correlations between confinement  of livestock and emergence of disease.


In the commentary on the TAFA conference, HSUS urged pressure on legislators to promote plant-based protein in the place of animal agriculture and to reduce the concentration of livestock.  The HSUS also calls for policies to protect natural ecosystems from agricultural expansion as exemplified in burning the fringes of the Amazon Rainforest for both cattle production and soybean cultivation in Brazil.  Although this is a laudable goal supported by this commentator, it has nothing to do with the emergence of human disease. There is only an indirect correlation between intensive agriculture and emergence of disease. Destruction of  rainforests displaces native species resulting in endemic viruses of free-living animals more accessible to humans. The same could be said for destruction of rainforests in Pacific nations to develop palm oil plantations having nothing to do with animal agriculture.


 The HSUS also calls for a ban on the sale of poultry at live bird markets, a sentiment which is supported as this system of distribution promotes the persistence of avian influenza and other infections. There is the possibility of emergence of new strains of avian influenza including H7N3 a pathogen of domestic birds infecting humans coming into contact with aerosols and viscera at wet markets.


The direction of the TAFA Conference demonstrates the cynical willingness of activist organizations to distort science and manipulate public concern to promote a vegan agenda. Their assertions have minimal scientific support. Epidemiologists recognize that emergence of human infections from wildlife, including SARS and Nipah virus and the most recent COVID-19, were bat-origin infections possibly with an intermediate reservoir host and were not in any way associated with livestock.