By Sharon Atieno

With over seventy percent of the 80 billion land animals farmed globally being raised and slaughtered within cruel industrial livestock production systems annually, the growing demand for meat will likely worsen the negative health impacts of food systems, a new report reveals.

The World Animal Protection report titled, The Hidden Health Impacts of Industrial Livestock Systems, exposes how governments around the world are turning a blind eye to the public health toll of factory farming as well as the suffering of billions of farmed animals.

The report builds on the concept of five pathways “through which food systems negatively affect our health” as outlined by the World Health Organization (WHO) in their 2021 report Food Systems Delivering Better Health.

These pathways include unhealthy diets and food insecurity, zoonotic pathogens and antimicrobial resistance (AMR), unsafe and adulterated foods, environmental contamination and degradation, and occupational hazards.

Industrial livestock systems lead to unhealthy diets or food insecurity and therefore contribute to malnutrition in all its forms (obesity, overweight and diet related non-communicable diseases (NCDs), and undernutrition (stunting, wasting (low weight for height) and micronutrient deficiencies).

The report notes that an increase in the availability of inexpensive high calorie livestock derived foods (LDFs) has often displaced a diversity of more traditional, local, nutritious, and healthier foods within many parts of the world, adding that this will be the situation in many low-and-midddle income countries (LMICs) where a rapid rise in factory farming and industrial livestock systems is forecasted to take place.

This in turn would increase malnourishment as LMICs are facing a ‘double burden’ of malnutrition and are having to confront undernutrition, whilst also experiencing overweight, obesity and diet-related NCDs, according to World Food Programme Hunger map.

Further, the report notes that the use of crops and arable land for intensive livestock production indirectly places rich meat and dairy consumers in competition for calories with those who need them most.

“Continuing along the path of livestock industrialisation and the westernisation of human diets will have dramatic consequences on land use globally which will make food security more challenging in areas which are already food insecure, including parts of Africa, Asia, and Latin America,” the report reads.

Additionally, factory farms, characterised by substandard husbandry practices and poor animal welfare, drive the increased use of antimicrobials, and are connected to the emergence of AMR and a range of zoonotic pathogens.

According to the report, the transition from subsistence and extensive to more commercial and intensive factory farming systems has resulted in zoonotic spill overs such as Nipah virus which emerged amongst pig farmers in Malaysia in 1998. This is because of higher livestock stocking densities, poor hygiene, lower animal welfare standards, and genetically similar breeds with less resilience to disease in intensive factory farming systems.

Moreover, studies have shown that the use of antimicrobials to promote growth and to routinely prevent disease in groups of animals, without addressing the underlying animal
welfare and husbandry practices that can prevent ill health, is contributing to the development and spread of AMR. As a result, the antibiotics when excreted from treated livestock/fisheries, end up in the wider environment contaminating soils, water courses and seas, thereby contributing to the selection of resistant strains of bacteria infecting humans.

The health impacts of unsafe and adulterated food include illnesses arising from consumption of livestock derived foods containing food safety hazards including pathogens, chemicals, and toxicants. In addition, parasites, viruses and chemical hazards associated with factory farming such as veterinary drug residues and chemicals or environmental pollutants (nitrates and heavy metals) can also be the source of unsafe and adulterated foods.

Adulteration of LDFS is a growing food safety concern worldwide, corresponding to the rapid growth in industrial livestock systems. It occurs when unbeknown to the consumer, substances are added to artificially augment the quality or quantity of a product, to lower production costs or increase sales prices,  the report says.

Also, the exposure of people to contaminated environments due to pesticides, hormone growth promoters, fertilizers, air pollution; and greenhouse gases including methane, nitrous oxides, and carbon dioxide because of livestock production and processing, could lead to negative heath impacts through pollution of soil, air, and water resources.

Within industrial livestock systems, occupational hazards can be physical and mental health impacts suffered by actors within their place of work and include livestock factory farmers, agricultural workers supplying feedstocks, aquaculture workers, abattoir workers, those working within meat processing and packaging facilities,livestock/meat distributors and those selling meat within the marketplace (retail, formal and informal markets).

Speaking during the launch of the report, Dr. Victor Yamo, Farming Campaigns Manager, World Animal Protection said: “The emergence of Antimicrobial Resistance in Africa is driven by weak regulatory capacity of government agencies charged with the responsibility of managing the production, registration, distribution and utilization of these products leading to the rampant misuse of these products. For instance, the law requires that antimicrobial drugs be purchased against a prescription, but our farmers can purchase the same over the counter without a prescription.”

He adds that the situation is further compounded by the inadequate extension personnel on the ground to advice the farming community on innovative and good animal welfare, animal husbandry and animal health practices such as good biosecurity, proper nutrition, housing, stocking densities, hygiene & sanitation and infection, prevention & control (IPC) strategies which would render the need for use of antimicrobial drugs unnecessary.

Dr. Lian Thomas, Scientist at the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) in Nairobi said:“Industrial livestock farming requires the production of a high density of genetically homogenous animals, which leads to the quick spread of diseases – many of which can directly affect human health. The health of farmed animals and their environment must be a high priority for the public health sector. Sustainable food systems which promote good animal health and welfare, and environmental protection, will directly protect human health.”

Systemic shifts are needed to deliver the biggest health gains for our population. Some of those include re-orientating subsidies away from factory farming towards humane and sustainable practices, improving affordability of plant-based foods, and providing transition support for farmers no longer wishing to engage in factory farming.

To make these shifts, World Animal Protection is calling for African governments to impose a moratorium on Industrial livestock production systems, introduce and enforce higher farmed animal welfare standards like the Farm Animals Responsible Minimum Standards (FARMS)

“Industrial Livestock Production systems are not only cruel to the animals that they produce but are also making us sick. On the surface, the meat, eggs, fish and dairy products produced by these systems seem cheap, but they are costing us our health and our governments trillions of dollars each year to mop up the damage they cause,”Jacqueline Mills, Head of Farming, at World Animal Protection, said.

“We need to break the cycle of suffering of the animals in our food system. The food industry needs to embrace a humane and sustainable future where farmed animals are kept in genuinely high welfare systems where they can have good lives. Now is the time for governments to focus on better health outcomes for farmed animals, people and the planet. We need a moratorium on Industrial Livestock Production systems.”

Among the recommendations given by the report include the need for African governments to recognize the inter-connectivity between public health and planetary impacts of industrialized farming systems and commit to stopping the support for these systems.

Also, the need for commitment in the form of a moratorium on industrial livestock production systems should be within the National Climate Action Plans (known as Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs)) in recognition of these systems contribution to climate impacts, and the African governments to develop and implement national One Health, One Welfare action plans and national AMR plans that recognize the health impacts of industrialized livestock and restrict its growth.