A Human Health Concern

A Human Health Concern

The Soil Association has signed an open letter to the next Director General of the World Health Organisation (WHO), calling on them to recognise industrial animal farming as a global human health issue.

The letter is signed by world-renowned experts and campaigners and highlights the rapid increase in factory farming around the world, fuelled by the ever-growing appetite for meat and dairy products. Other attempts to address the problems with factory farming generally focus on animal welfare or environmental impacts, but this letter argues that “limiting the size and adverse practices of factory farming is also central to improving global health”.

It gives three reasons why industrial animal farming should be recognised as a global human health issue:

  1. Antibiotic resistance

pills on a tableIntensive animal farming is a major contributor to the looming crisis of antibiotic resistance, with over 75% of all antibiotics used in the EU and the United States being administered to farm animals. Often these drugs are administered to animals in low doses, across whole flocks or herds, either as a preventative measure, or to make the animals grow faster (although the second practice is banned in the EU). Antibiotic resistance is already responsible for the deaths of an estimated 700,000 people each year; a figure that could rise to 9.5 million by 2050 if current trends continue, according to the OECD.

  1. Climate change

soil drought

Industrial animal farming is also implicated in climate change. Ruminant animals such as sheep and cows emit methane, a potent greenhouse gas, but the greenhouse emissions associated with producing feed for livestock is also a major factor. Intensively farmed animals (mainly pigs and poultry, but also an increasing number of dairy cows) are reared on diets of cereals, like maize and wheat, and proteins such as soya. Growing these crops requires vast tracts of land, fertilisers and pesticides, creating a huge burden on the climate and the environment. Intensive, industrial-scale livestock farming also contributes to local environmental problems such as soil degradation and air and water pollution, harming the ability of countries to produce a stable supply of food now and in the future.

  1. Diet-related illness

medical professional in a surgery room

Finally, the letter highlights the fact that the rise in obesity and diet-related diseases – including diabetes, heart disease, stroke and several types of cancer – can partly be attributed to a significant increase in meat consumption. With meat demand expected to rise in low- and middle-income countries, facilitated by intensive farming, the burden of diet-related illness is set to continue.

The letter concludes by noting the global nature of the harms caused by industrial-scale animal farming; neither climate change nor antibiotic resistance recognise state borders, and diet-related illness is a global issue. The WHO has a history of standing up to tobacco companies and arguing for action on sugar consumption – the same action is now urgently required on industrial animal farming.

The letter urges the WHO to respond to these issues, and proposes a number of recommendations. These include:

  • Encouraging governments to ban routine, preventative use of antibiotics in livestock farming;
  • Discouraging governments from subsidising factory farming;
  • Encourage governments to adopt nutrition standards and implement campaigns aimed at reducing meat consumption;
  • Working with governments to develop policies which advocate for more plant-based diets.

In addition to supporting these proposals, the Soil Association is calling on the UK Government to put animal welfare at the heart of its vision for future farming policy and commit to ensuring a good life for all farm animals in the next ten years.