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Modern Farms Are Frat Parties for Germs

March 18, 2001|BRIAN HALWEIL and DANI NIERENBERG | Brian Halweil and Dani Nierenberg are researchers at the Worldwatch Institute in Washington, D.C

The spread of mad cow disease and foot-and-mouth across Europe shows that no country is immune to the threat of animal-borne illnesses. The modern animal farm not only allows, but paves the way for the outbreak of disease. We cram thousands of genetically uniform animals into unhygienic warehouses, generating a virtual frat party for microbes. We recycle animal manure and slaughterhouse waste as feed. We process meat at breakneck speed in the presence of blood, feces and other contagions. Long-distance transport of food creates endless opportunities for contamination.

The irony is that this model of food production--designed to put economic gain ahead of good animal health--doesn't make any economic sense in the long term. Mad cow alone has already cost Britain more than $1 billion and sapped $5.6 million from European Union coffers.

And these outbreaks are just a glimpse of the full toll on society. The mountains of manure that factory farming generates foul our air and water, disrupting ecosystems and sickening rural communities. Antibiotic overuse in factory farms comes back to harm us in the form of newly drug-resistant microbes. A study found that America's farm animals consume roughly 10 times as much antibiotics as the human population.

Still, industrial animal farming is spreading. It is the fastest-growing form of animal production, responsible for nearly half of the world's meat. Though concentrated in North America and Europe, feedlots are popping up near urban centers in Brazil, the Philippines, China and India.

There is, of course, another way to produce meat, one that treats farms as living systems rather than assembly lines. It's no coincidence that mad cow has yet to be reported on organic farms throughout Europe that prohibit feeding of slaughterhouse waste, give animals access to the outdoors and emphasize good animal health in general.

Every government needs reforms at the national level, but in the end, it's a global issue. Trade is global, disease is global, and protecting public health must become global too.

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