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Is the Food Supply Chain really breaking? Perhaps it is broken already.

Is the Food Supply Chain really breaking? Perhaps it is broken already.

Headlines this week trumpeted that the ”Food supply chain is breaking” as a result of meat processing plants in the U.S. having become incubators for coronavirus. The U.S. president himself even stepped in and has forced the plants to stay open due to being a part of critical infrastructure.

In many countries, meat processing plants have been on lockdown for almost two months, as they should be, seeing as social distancing is next to impossible in such workplaces. Meat packing plants in the U.S., however, have only recently begun closing as their employees were succumbing to mass infection. With Tyson Foods declaring that it was planning to close 80% of its facilities, the president of the U.S. issued an executive order that classified meat processors as ”critical infrastructure” that must be kept operational. I would like to shed some light on this and comment on the situation as a whole and what this holds for the future of the meat industry.

While consumers in the U.S. may indeed be having trouble finding certain cuts of meat as a result of the shut-downs, is the food supply chain truly breaking? Hardly. The supply chain is struggling in a variety of ways, but it is the farmers who are at risk, not the consumers or grocery stores. There is plenty of frozen meat for consumers to eat for some time and workers can be fitted with protective clothing. So why the sudden insistence that meat processing plants are critical to U.S. infrastructure? The decision to keep the plants open is likely being made to ease the burden on the livestock farmers. While a meat processing facility can be closed, a farm cannot.

Before addressing the livestock issue, I would like to comment on the rapid spread of the coronavirus through the meat processing plants. This is particularly concerning given that these kinds of facilities are very highly sanitized and contained. In the U.S., federal requirements for pathogen control and food safety are high, with workers wearing safety goggles, frocks and boots, and facilities are disinfected completely every night after the last shift. Even with social distancing among employees in cafeterias and changing rooms, the virus has spread like wildfire. This is of course due to the workers standing shoulder to shoulder on the processing floor, but it takes little leap of the imagination to contemplate how viruses then spread in factory farms, where livestock also stand shoulder-to-shoulder, 24 hours a day, with no visors or face masks to protect them.

But back to the claims of the meat supply chain being on the brink of collapse…. This is absolutely untrue. That ”millions of pounds of meat are disappearing from the American food supply chain” means next to nothing. It doesn’t put consumers at more than a slight inconvenience. The U.S. meat industry alone produces 60 billion pounds of meat a year so even half a billion pounds were lost, that would still mean a shortage of less than 1%.

So, what’s the problem? The problem is that in the developed world we have gotten used to being able to walk into any grocery store and pick up any cut of meat we want, at very reasonable prices. That luxury has resulted in a meat supply infrastructure that necessitates factory farms operating at extremely high capacity. The breeders cannot simply stop feeding or sending its livestock to slaughter at the press of a button. Where would they house all the animals if they are not being butchered and processed? Should they set millions of chickens, pigs and cows free to roam the streets until slaughterhouses decide to re-open? I think not.

Thus, while meat processors can halt production at the press of a button, livestock producers are the ones caught in the lurch. The cows, pigs and chickens need to be fed and moved to slaughter or else the farms get over-populated, and crowded conditions is what caused this problem in the first place. Work stoppage at processing plants is therefore creating an untenable bottleneck, and that is the real reason the U.S. president is claiming that the processing facilities have to stay open, not that Americans don’t have any meat to eat.

With workers at American meat processing facilities now being equipped with the same protective equipment as hospital workers, it will likely be business as usual in the processing plants, but this mini-crisis does beg the question: Is factory farming of livestock sustainable?

Without a doubt, factory farms are the biggest risk factor when it comes to global pandemics. While experts have hypothesized that the Covid-19 virus made the jump from animals to humans due to China’s wet markets, just like SARS before it, factory farms are just as big a risk factor for pandemics. Of all the meat that is consumed globally, 90% is being produced in industrialized facilities where cows, pigs and chickens are raised in rather cramped conditions. Needless to say, in these days of social distancing, overcrowding is not a good idea. To make matters worse, selection for specific genes in farmed animals for desirable traits like large chicken breasts has made these animals almost genetically identical. That means that a virus can easily spread from animal to animal without encountering any genetic variants that might stop it in its tracks. As it rips through a flock or herd, the virus can grow even more virulent.

The World Health Organization has for years been warning that most emerging infectious diseases come from animals and that industrialized farming practices are putting us at risk. Measles, smallpox, tuberculosis, pertussis, leprosy and even the common cold all originated from domesticated animals, as did SARS, MERS, Mad Cow Disease and swine flu. When H1N1 jumped to humans in 2009, the FAO noted in a report that livestock health is the weakest link in our global health chain and I believe that with Covid-19 having such a devastating impact, zoonotic disease control will now begin to be taken far more seriously.

Again, while scientists believe that Covid-19 originated in wild bats and not factory farms, minimizing the risk for additional pandemics will need to stretch much further than just shutting down wet markets in China.

When discussing pandemics, it is important to differentiate between the two types of possible outbreaks. The first type is a viral pandemic, such as Covid-19 and the 1918 ”Spanish Flu” influenza that infected one-third of the world’s population and killed 50 million people. The second type is a bacterial pandemic, the prime example being the bubonic plague (“Black Death”) that decimated Europe’s population in the Middle Ages.

Factory farming presents a risk in both these categories: virulent influenza and highly drug-resistant forms of bacterial pathogens are both driven by the crowded conditions in industrial factory farms.

For decades experts have feared avian influenza outbreaks. Bird flu, like swine flu, spreads rapidly in factory farms seeing as birds and pigs in these farms are kept in close proximity and are bred to be almost identical genetically. That is a recipe for a highly virulent virus to emerge.

When animals are in the wild or on a small farm, highly virulent pathogens cannot thrive seeing as they will not come across other hosts as regularly. Therefore, only pathogens with low virulence tend to survive. If, however, a pathogen evolves in a barn that houses tens or hundreds of thousands of chickens, pigs or cows, it can spread like a wildfire, so even if virulence is very high and the pathogen kills its host in a matter of days, it will survive thanks to the new hosts located just inches away. In order to stave off this risk, livestock farmers have for decades been feeding animals antibiotics, which has unfortunately compounded the problem seeing as this increases the risk for resistant bacterial strains.

Bacterial pathogens that are highly resistant to antibiotics has also long been feared by experts worldwide. In spite of awareness, and considerable efforts on the part of some countries to reduce usage, antibiotics are still overused in appalling quantities, resulting in bacteria evolving into diseases that we can no longer treat. To this day, only 20% of antibiotics are consumed by humans. The remaining 80% are used to suppress infection and stimulate growth in livestock and poultry. In 2012, factory farms in China and the U.S. alone fed animals more than 50,000 tons of antibiotics. Some European countries began banning the use of antibiotics for growth promotion in the 1980s and the EU implemented a plan to phase out antibiotic use by 2006, but that is like cleaning just one half of a swimming pool. With lax regulations in many parts of the world, the post-antibiotic era is already here… Drug-resistant diseases such as C. difficile and N. gonorrhoeae have arisen and each day hundreds of people in the western world die due to bacterial infections that antibiotics are unable to treat effectively.

How can the world build a better food system post-coronavirus? The answer lies in the saying: ”An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure”.

In countries like the United States where meat is a part of national identity and citizens consume close to 100 kg of meat a year, one definitely needs to find ways of farming livestock in a way that minimizes the spread of zoonotic diseases. In the process, it would be worthwhile to address the other problems associated with industrialized farming, in particular the impact it has on climate change. De-intensification of the livestock industry is a must, but the question is how. Basically, the animals could use a bit of social distancing. That alone would go a long way toward reducing risk of pandemics in the future. The most important next steps, therefore, is the creation of stimulus packages for farmers to move toward smaller, less-crowded farms and the use of alternatives to antibiotics in handling herd health, such as IoT health monitoring collars. Confinement practices such as gestation crates also needs to be abolished and simple measures such as providing straw beddings for pigs will cut down on swine flu transmission rates as this reduces immunosuppressant stress levels. What is paramount, though, is that these practices be implemented globally since, as we now know all too well, pandemics can spread very quickly.

If and when a transition is made to smaller-scale animal husbandry, we also believe that stimulus packages should be created to reintroduce biodiversity into livestock farms. Raising animals that are slightly different from each other genetically (rather than selecting for specific genes) will build in immunological firebreaks to help prevent the spread of infectious diseases. The majority of farmers we know whole-heartedly embrace regenerative agriculture, but the problem is that they lack the support they need. Consumers are spoiled and want high quality at low cost. Hopefully, the Covid-19 pandemic will move decision-makers to give this issue the attention it deserves, as phasing out excessively industrialized farming will likely reduce the likelihood of a zoonotic pandemic outbreak.

Last but not least, the way poultry and livestock are traded across international borders is an issue that will likely start being scrutinized from here on out. Global trade has resulted in disease strains that were previously isolated from each other on opposite sides of the world now being able to recombine. What we can see is a movement toward trade in carcasses only, rather than live animals.

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