By 2030, the planet's population is expected to reach 8.5 billion, and countries worldwide will need to rethink their food systems to feed more mouths. As climate change threatens the global food supply chains, governments will be required to increase the efficiency of food production. New research indicates that despite short-term benefits such as reduced food insecurity, intensifying animal agriculture increases the risk of long-term issues such as animal-borne pandemics.

The anticipated intensification of agriculture worldwide leans unevenly and dangerously into the meat production industry. To meet the increased global demand for food, governments have expanded methods such as factory farming –– known to significantly raise the risk of zoonotic diseases –– to improve food production efficiency.

"As long as meat consumption continues to rise globally, both climate change, from deforestation and methane, and pandemics will likely continue to rise," Matthew Hayek, an assistant professor in New York University's Department of Environmental Studies and the author of the analysis, said.

Researchers from New York University, including Hayek, published these findings in Science Advances. The study examined 100 articles written about the illness-related consequences of animal agriculture and its negative effects on the environment.

The research examined how the worsening climate crisis requires countries to produce more food, more efficiently, putting both humans and animals at greater risk of disease. Instead of shifting to more sustainable food production, the animal agriculture industry is implementing intensification processes such as hormones, machinery, and antibiotics. These processes are linked to accelerated disease development in factory-farmed animals.

Factory Farms Pose Disease Risks

Hayek's multi-study analysis reveals that while intensification can reduce animal feed requirements and curb deforestation, this process greatly increases the risk of zoonotic diseases that emerge from domestically farmed animals. This confinement presents the most risks in pork and poultry production.

"This is because intensive production facilities confine animals close to each other," Hayek continued. "This confinement, most typically used for pigs and chickens, allows diseases to quickly spread and mutate rapidly between many thousands of animals in one facility."

The analysis highlights how chicken production requires three times the number of antibiotics when compared to beef production. This process increases the risk of avian flu and antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Not only does the process generate more diseases, but also increases the severity of zoonotic diseases, especially when spreading to humans.

"Meat consumption creates a 'trap' of disease risks: extensive 'free-range' production that requires wildlife habitat clearing on one hand or intensive animal confinement on the other," Hayek stated. "To prevent both climate change and costly pandemics in tandem, we should rapidly reduce meat consumption as well as support forest protections and better farmed animal health through veterinary services. Policies can help accelerate the shift to plant-rich options by changing our food landscape: making plant-based choices easier to access, more affordable, and more appealing."

To continue feeding an exponentially growing population, meat and dairy giants have adopted these methods rather than introducing more sustainable, safer forms of agriculture.

Animal Agriculture Killing the Planet

Meat and dairy products only provide the world with 18 percent of its total calories, but this environmentally taxing process requires 83 percent of the planet's available farmland. Cattle production is the biggest contributor to methane emissions, which has 80 times more warming power than carbon dioxide in the first 20 years it reaches the atmosphere.

Several initiatives including the Plant Based Treaty argue that to curb climate change and fight food insecurity worldwide, plant-based food systems must replace current unsustainable industries. The United Nations has also emphasized that the world's food systems need to implement plant-based programs to effectively fight climate change. Consumers even could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 61 percent by adopting a plant-based diet.

For more planetary happenings, visit The Beet's Environmental News articles

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