Bigger farms, more disease, says FAO

Acclaimed food writer Michael Pollan wrote a few years ago that the conditions on modern factory farms—places that confine thousands of chickens, pigs, and cows together—reminded him of medieval cities. Crowded, filthy, and smelly, it’s not surprising that factory farms provide the perfect environment for the emergence and spread of disease, including pathogenic E. coli (discovered in the early 1980s in cow manure) and H5N1 (the deadly avian flu that has been spreading since 2003). Factory farms can also cause respiratory ailments among animals and humans alike, and because of the overuse and misuse of antibiotics at these facilities, they are a major culprit in the spread of antibiotic resistance.

On Monday, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) predicted—in a surprising move for them—that these problems are likely to worsen as both human and livestock populations increase and as our appetite for meat grows. Half of the world’s population now lives in urban areas, and cities are fast becoming destinations for factory farms, particularly in the developing world. In 2006, meat production increased 2.5 percent to an estimated 276 million tons, and output is expected to rise another 3 percent in 2007 to 285 million tons. (See Worldwatch's Vital Signs 2007–2008 report.)

According to FAO, the pig and poultry sectors are the fastest growing segments of industrial animal agriculture—pork production has grown 2.6 percent, and poultry 3.7 percent, in just the last decade. And because the trade in these animals results in them moving across international borders, there is a greater disease risk.

In the past, FAO, the World Bank, and other international development agencies have encouraged the growth of industrial animal agriculture for a variety of reasons. For one, foreign investment in agriculture can be a boon to developing-country economies. Also, these organizations believed that by raising animals indoors with antibiotics and under controlled heating and lighting conditions, they could control the spread of disease. Unfortunately, more and more evidence points to factory farms as the epicenters of the spread of some diseases.

So now it looks like FAO, at least for the time being, may be changing its tune. “Excessive concentration of animals in large-scale industrial production units should be avoided, and adequate investments should be made in heightened biosecurity and improved disease monitoring to safeguard public health,” said FAO livestock policy expert Joachim Otte. Smaller farms, more genetic diversity, and more humane conditions for farm workers and animals alike may be the best defense against disease.