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HEALTH: “Factory Farms” Churn Out Pollution and Disease

Jim Lobe

WASHINGTON, Sep 28 2005 (IPS) - The explosive spread of factory farming of meat and poultry from North America and Europe to developing countries, particularly in Asia and Latin America, is posing a serious threat to human and animal health and surrounding ecosystems, according to a new report released here Wednesday by the Worldwatch Institute.

The 91-page report, “Happier Meals: Rethinking the Global Meat Industry”, notes that “concentrated animal feeding operations” (CAFOs) currently account for more than 40 percent of world meat production, up from 30 percent in 1990, and have become “the fastest growing form of meat production worldwide”.

Their growth has been particularly strong in countries where environmental, animal health and labour regulations and their enforcement are relatively lax, increasing the risks of exposing animals and the humans who tend them to contagious diseases, such as avian flu and mad-cow disease.

“As environmental and labour regulations in the European Union (EU) and the United States become stronger and more prohibitive, large agribusinesses are moving their animal production operations overseas, primarily to countries with less stringent enforcement,” according to Worldwatch research associate Danielle Nierenberg, the report’s main author.

She compared the current situation to those depicted by muckracking journalist Upton Sinclair in “The Jungle” – a wildly successful expose of labour and production practices in Chicago’s stockyards and slaughterhouses that contributed to the creation of the federal agency nearly a century ago that would later become the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

“Factory farms were designed to bring animals to market as quickly and cheaply as possible,” she said. “Yet they invite a host of environmental, animal welfare, and public health problems.”

The report comes amid growing concern about the spread of emerging diseases capable of jumping from animals to humans, as well as the obesity epidemic that increasingly afflicts consumers of high-protein fast-foods in developing countries, as well as the United States.

According to a major new report by the World Health Organisation (WHO) released last week, the number of overweight and obese people worldwide is set to increase by half – from one billion to 1.5 billion – over the next 10 years.

Fuelled by rapid urbanisation, global trade and advertising, cheap feed grains and antibiotics, and limited grazing land, world meat production has quintupled since 1950 – to some 258 million tones in 2004. Pork has led the pack, followed by chicken and beef.

As demand for meat and poultry has increased, the methods of production have also changed. Small farmers have given way to CAFOs that “crowd hundreds of thousands of cows, pigs, chickens, or turkeys together, with little or no access to natural light and fresh air and little opportunity to perform their natural behaviours,” according to the report.

Such conditions create the perfect environment for the spread of disease, including avian flu, according to the report.

CAFOs now account for 74 percent of the world’s poultry products; 68 percent of eggs; 50 percent of pork products; and 43 percent of beef.

The growing industrialisation of meat production has been accompanied by increasing concentration of the major corporate producers. Just four producers currently control the U.S. beef market; four others control 56 percent of the chicken meat industry.

Tyson Foods touts itself as the “largest provider of protein products on the planet”, with more than 26 billion dollars in annual sales and operations in Argentina, Brazil, Britain, China, India, Indonesia, Japan, Mexico, the Netherlands, the Philippines, Russia, Spain, and Venezuela.

CAFOs also depend to a great extent on the provision of artificial and potentially toxic ingredients, including persistent organic pollutants (POPS), polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), arsenic, hormones, and other chemicals that can pollute ecosystems.

Moreover, the overuse of antibiotics and other anti-microbials to prevent or fight off possible infections in factory-farmed livestock and poultry is reducing the effectiveness of those same medicines in humans who consume the products.

“We’re sacrificing a future where antibiotics will work for treating sick people by squandering them today for animals that are not sick at all,” according to David Wallinga of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy.

Hormone additives may also lead to health problems in consumers, including certain kinds of cancer and premature puberty in children – concerns that led the European Union to ban imports of U.S. and Canadian beef.

Factory farming is also inefficient in terms of resource usage. Producing just one calorie of beef takes 33 percent more fossil-fuel energy than producing a calorie of potatoes. Eight ounces of beef requires up to 25,000 litres of water. By contrast, enough flour for a loaf of bread normally requires only 550 litres.

And, while fisheries around the world are under unprecedented stress and some virtually fished out, about a third of the global marine fish catch is used for fish meal, two-thirds of which is used to fatten chickens, pigs and other livestock.

Factory-farming has other negative impacts as well, including reducing biodiversity, according to the report. In Europe, for example, more than half of all domestic animal breeds that existed 100 years ago have disappeared, and nearly half of the remaining breeds are considered endangered because they are not as productive as breeds used in factory farming.

The report notes that developing countries may now be undergoing a similar process, with industrial breeds crowding out indigenous ones, just as large corporate interests that have introduced factory farming are making it far more difficult for small farmers to compete, particularly in Asia and Latin America.

According to Nierenberg, the ill-effects of factory farming are unlikely to be overcome by technological fixes, such as food irradiation or genetic engineering.

The report argues for several measures to redress the problem, including educating consumers about the benefits of organic and grass-fed livestock and of vegan and vegetarian diets; supporting small-scale livestock production and other alternatives to factory farming; and improving both animal-welfare and occupational standards and their enforcement.

It applauded several companies, including U.S.-based McDonald’s Corporation and Whole Foods Market, which have introduced animal-welfare standards with which their suppliers are expected to comply.

It also noted the World Bank’s policy decision in 2001 to cease funding large-scale livestock projects in developing countries. And it welcomed the adoption by the World Organisation for Animal Health, which includes 167 member countries, of voluntary standards for the humane transportation and slaughter of animals.

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