THE BLOG

The Unintended Cost of Intensive Modern Farming Might Just Be Our Health

03/06/2013 23:57 BST | Updated 03/08/2013 10:12 BST

Serious questions are raised about the food we eat and how it is produced. The World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA) and Compassion in World Farming have recently published some rather startling reading.

The report, Zoonotic Diseases, Human Health and Farm Animal Welfare, warns that the tendency to rear animals in confined indoor spaces, using selective breeds and intensive management methods to dramatically increase production to satisfy voracious consumer demand for meat and other animal products is putting human health in serious danger.

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© WSPA

It is well-known that bacteria such as Campylobacter, Salmonella and E. coli all cause serious disease in people, and in some cases can even be fatal. The report illustrates how intensive farming practices are increasing the risk of these dangerous bacteria in our food chain, as stressed animals become more susceptible to infection.

We have long been aware of the negative effects of stress in humans. It increases susceptibility to infection and disease, with potentially serious outcomes. This report highlights that farm animals are also affected by stress, which puts not only their welfare but also people's well-being at risk. To safeguard both animal and human health, managing animals in ways that ensure their protection must be a priority for us all.

Important tools in the battle against these zoonotic diseases include using animal breeds, more appropriate diets and better management conditions that minimise stress and optimise animal welfare and immunity. Limiting transport times, good vaccination programmes and reducing the practice of non-therapeutic antibiotics are also crucial in reducing risks of disease.

One startling finding in this report is the markedly different levels of E.Coli (EHEC) in the UK and the US, which is likely to be due to the intensive farming of beef cattle in the US. Rather than rearing cattle on pasture, which is common in the UK, cattle are fed grain in feedlots increasing the risk of E. coli in the gut of cattle, which can contaminate meat at slaughter.

Studies of beef cattle in the US indicate E.Coli may be present in the intestines or on the hides of 20-28% of cattle at slaughter and in 43% of meat samples after processing. Levels in the UK are lower, with only 4.7% of cattle intestine samples testing positive. The US has around 73,000 human cases a year, compared to fewer than 1,000 in England and Wales, a significant difference even when the population discrepancy is taken into account.

While the findings published in our report are indeed alarming, we do know that there are solutions. At WSPA, we have the privilege to work with a number of farmers, some of whom have changed from intensive farming methods to more environmentally sustainable and humane practices by putting animal welfare at the heart of their operations. Their business models have proven economically successful as well--putting animals back outdoors, reducing the need to transport animals to slaughter, healthier animals producing higher quality of meat which fetches a higher price.

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© WSPA

I believe that the well-being of animals and people is inextricably intertwined, as highlighted in this report. A different approach towards food production is urgently needed. WSPA wants to change the way we perceive and treat the billions of farm animals the world relies on for food.

The results of intensive farming methods - keeping animals caged, reared indoors in inhumane conditions, fed inappropriate diets and pumped full of drugs - is clear to see. Unless we act now to improve our systems of modern farming, we could very well be putting our own health and the health of our children in grave danger.