co-author: Anne Hanssen
Slowly the Netherlands dares to think again about a world after the corona crisis. We never want to experience a pandemic like this again. However, in that case we must dare to change course. The COVID-19 virus that caused this crisis is a zoonosis, ie a disease that has passed from animal to human. In this case of wild animals bred and traded in China on the so-called wet-markets.
Although the images of these markets look horrible, the way we treat farm animals is not much different. We also consider it acceptable to breed and trade animals as cheaply as possible to satisfy our desire for cheap animal products. We accept that animals suffer severely and ecosystems here and elsewhere in the world are affected and disappear.
For decades, virologists have warned of a pandemic caused by an animal-derived pathogen. Corona was mentioned as a possible cause, but a new strain of influenza (flu) that is said to be highly contagious and highly pathogenic was considered the main contender.
Influenza is not only found in humans, but also in pigs and chickens. The animal species that we keep in tightly closed stables in our current intensive livestock farming to prevent the risk of an infectious (animal) disease, among other things. Where anyone who wants to enter (such as staff, veterinarians or food advisers) must first take a shower in a lock construction, then dress with company clothing, including plastic gloves, hairnet and mask, before entering the stable.
Special “leashes” are taken into account – from departments with young animals to departments with old animals – and often even changing once is required for different age groups: different color everywhere, boots and new gloves. Windows and doors are closed at all times and the animals receive their “fresh” air via automatically controlled fans with filters.
In order to prevent overheating of the animals in the summer, the roofs of such hermetically closed cattle factories sometimes need to be sprayed for hours to prevent high (er) mortality. Air scrubbers extract the air in the house and should reduce odor and fine dust nuisance to the environment. In practice, however, these air scrubbers often turn out to work insufficiently.
In addition, things regularly go wrong when importing or exporting the house air via these fans or air scrubbers. Where the animals suffocate in the house when the ventilation fails or burn alive when a flame somewhere in the house in the blink of an eye creates a hellfire in the blink of an eye due to the spread of the fire through the pipes of the air scrubber system and fueled by the high concentration of highly flammable gases created by the mixture of manure and urine. The animals literally have nowhere to go.
In these tight and crowded stables, a virus finds the perfect conditions to spread. Due to the lack of fresh air and ventilation, there is a high concentration of ammonia and particulate matter that affects the sensitive airways, which makes the animals more susceptible to infection. In current pig farming, a large proportion of the pigs have – sometimes serious – lung abnormalities. Residents of intensive livestock farms, for that reason – despite the air scrubbers – also often suffer from their airways.
The study « Livestock Farming and Local Residents » (VGO), shows that residents of livestock farms have less functioning lungs with more pneumonia and are more often infected with bacteria from the livestock. It has been proven beyond doubt that the number of pneumonia in North Brabant and Limburg has been 50 to 60 percent above the national average for the past eight years.
In addition, the lack of ventilation in the stable provides higher humidity, and the lack of sunlight, with the UV light that is harmful to pathogens, means that microorganisms can survive for weeks in wet manure on the stable floors or in the well.
Keep in mind that the immune systems of these animals often function inadequately due to the high levels of stress caused by the miserable living conditions and the exhaustion of their bodies due to rapid growth or high production and it becomes clear that a virus can infect more easily due to all these factors and can spread quickly due to the enormous amount of animals close together.
Despite the precautions mentioned in dense barns and hygiene locks, stables with thousands to hundreds of thousands of animals are culled every time an infectious, for example zoonotic, animal disease has broken out somewhere in the world. As for example recently in Germany where, due to the presence of avian influenza, bird flu that can also be infectious to humans, 10,000 turkeys were killed.
Closing a stable in such a way that vermin or even flies that can also transmit viruses and bacteria cannot enter the house, despite the best and laboratory-worthy hygiene protocols, is a utopia. And, not unimportant, for the animals a serious impairment in their welfare.
Although there does not seem to be a direct link between the corona pandemic and intensive livestock farming, there are indirect connections:
– Some of the wild animals traded on wet markets no longer come from the wild, but are nowadays “just” bred on special farms. An intensive farming of, in this case not cattle, but of wild animals.
– Another link is the destruction of entire ecosystems by cutting down forests, including old-growth forests, to produce the feed of the millions of animals kept in intensive livestock farming. As a result, the habitat of wild animals and their viruses is becoming increasingly smaller and closer to the habitat of humans.
The statement: « COVID-19 is not a pandemic caused by intensive livestock farming » is therefore only partially correct.
In intensive livestock farming there is economic importance for animal welfare, the animals are products of no intrinsic value. Even larger numbers put away even better will only create false safety for humans while it further worsens the living situation of the animals.
It is time to recognize that current livestock farming has nothing to do with the romantic image of the countryside, but has become an industry where economic interests take precedence over human health, animal welfare or the protection of nature. This crisis is one wake up call, it is high time to review globally how we treat animals and their living environment, not only for the welfare of animals but certainly also for human health.