The negative public health impact of expanding industrial animal farming warrants immediate action by the World Health Organization, according to an open letter signed by more than 200 scientists, global health experts and environmental activists.
Industrial animal farming is linked to what WHO Director-General Margaret Chan called the “three slow-motion disasters” shaping global health in her address to the World Health Assembly last year: antibiotic resistance, climate change and chronic noncommunicable diseases. If the U.N.’s health organization is worried about those issues and is serious about reducing the effects, then it must seek ways to reduce the global dependence on factory farms to produce meat, the letter stated.
“Eating animals may have been crucial to our survival in the past. But now, it’s killing us,” letter co-authors Scott Weathers and Sophie Hermanns, wrote in an OpEd for the New York Times with former columnist Mark Bittman.
The clearest connection is to the rapidly growing problem of microbes resistant to antibiotics. Resistance to drugs developed slowly in the decades after antibiotics were discovered, but now the pace is so fast that researchers are witnessing instances of resistance during the development of a new drug. Meanwhile, the development pipeline is slow, which renders some treatments for things like malaria, tuberculosis, and gonorrhea ineffective.
It is a major issue of concern for the WHO. As many as 700,000 people die each year from drug-resistant microbes, according to estimates from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. The burden falls on developing countries, but with 23,000 deaths in 2013, it is also an issue facing the United States.
In February, the WHO identified the 12 families of bacteria that pose the greatest threat to humanity. All are resistant to multiple antibiotics and need immediate action to develop new drugs so that small cuts and routine surgeries do not turn deadly. Better research and development is crucial, as is cutting down on misuse. If a course of antibiotic is not completed, the bacteria can develop resistance.
The animals we eat are also prone to bacterial infections, meaning they, too, need antibiotics. Animals also constitute the majority of antibiotic use – accounting for 80 percent of total consumption in the United States. The global usage rate is expected to grow by 67 percent between 2010 and 2030 – potentially accelerating the already-rapid pace of resistance.
That translates to as many as 9.5 million per year by 2050 caused by drug-resistant microbes. That is more than the number of people who die from cancer each year, according to the open letter.
The WHO already knows this is a problem. Food production practices need to be “revised and optimized,” Chan said in an OpEd she co-wrote in September 2016. The letter’s authors argued that the WHO must do more. It should explicitly draw the line connecting factory farming and antibiotic resistance, then make recommendations based on the need to avert millions of deaths each year.
The authors also point out that meat consumption is a key factor in global warming and the rise of obesity and noncommunicable diseases. The U.N.’s food agency warned in 2006 that livestock has a significantly negative impact on the environment. Reducing meat production would help slow warming and stop the deforestation that takes place for the sake of creating more space for livestock grazing, they argued.
Further, diets high in processed and red meat contribute to problems like cancer, cardiovascular disease and diabetes. More than 500,000 deaths in the U.S. were attributed to the problem, according to Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation estimates.
The WHO has the opportunity to lead on the issue. The letter urges it to use its influence over the 200 U.N. member countries and encourage them to cease subsidies for factory farming, create rules banning antibiotics for growth promotion and leading research into plant-based meat alternatives.
“The harms caused by large-scale, industrial animal farming are global in nature and felt beyond those who consume meat, dairy and eggs. Climate change does not recognize borders and neither do drug-resistant infectious diseases,” according to the letter. “Just as the WHO has bravely confronted companies that harm human health by peddling tobacco and sugar-sweetened beverages, it must not waver in advocating for the regulation of industrial animal farming.”