The analysis, published last month in Climatic Change, looks at the PR moves behind some of the world’s largest producers of meat and dairy, comparing them to their emissions. Most shockingly, the analysis finds that all 10 of the top agriculture companies in the U.S. have contributed to efforts to downplay how agribusiness is linked to climate change.
“We’re trying to show how important thinking about the corporate actor is in this problem,” said Jennifer Jacquet, an associate professor of environmental studies at New York University and a coauthor of the paper. “These companies are not just influencing the geophysical processes, they’re influencing the social processes. This just hasn’t been as appreciated as it has been in other sectors, like fossil fuels.”G/O Media may get a commission
The world’s grasslands are an essential carbon sink, and may even be more efficient at capturing…Read more
The United Nations estimates that animal agriculture accounts for more than 14% of global emissions. A seminal 2018 report, which this new analysis builds on, found that the world’s top 35 beef and dairy producers alone account for 15% of all thoseemissions. One of the gnarliest issues with animal agriculture is, of course, methane produced from cows. Methane is a short-term greenhouse gas—it doesn’t stay in the atmosphere as long as carbon dioxide—but it is substantially more potent and can cause more damage while it’s in there. Research published last year found that global annual methane emissions increased 9% from 2000 to 2017—the equivalent of doubling the total carbon dioxide emissions of Germany or France—largely as a result of agriculture.
The Climatic Change study is separated into three parts. First, the authors surveyed the list of the world’s top 35 producers for sustainability commitments using any available documents—including reports to investors, websites, and annual reports—to get as many details as possible. Of the 35 companies surveyed, just a scant handful had any sort of explicit commitment to lower emissions; just four had a net zero by 2050 target, while three others had some sort of goal set over the next few decades. Most of those commitments, the study found, were vague and focused on mitigating energy use in company supply chains rather than actually lowering methane emissions from animals in their systems.
Next, the study compared these companies’ specific greenhouse has emissions footprints to that of their headquartered countries to see how they lined up with individual countries’ commitments to the Paris Agreement. The findings show that many of these companies’ emissions are so large that incorporating their emissions into the countries where they’re headquartered would vastly exceed these country’s carbon budgets. The emissions from Nestlé and dairy producer Fonterra, headquartered in Switzerland and New Zealand respectively, would take up all of their home country’s carbon budgets.
There’s a lot of cross-country math involved in some of these calculations—companies headquartered in Switzerland, for example, own farmland elsewhere in the world—and, as Jacquet pointed out, it doesn’t fit exactly into how the Paris Agreement demands countries count up their emissions. But the process, Jacquet said, was more intended as a thought exercise to encourage countries to take action and help keep agribusiness in check.
“If Smithfield is planting or buying soy from the Amazon, maybe that should be part of WH Group, which owns Smithfield, emissions accounting [in China],” Jacquet said. “Are the countries that are home to major animal ag companies thinking a lot about this sector? [These companies] are part of these countries’ tax base and employing their citizens. What are these countries going to do about this sector?”
Finally, the third portion of the study zeroes in on the U.S, and efforts from meat producers headquartered here to downplay their role in the climate crisis. This finding is perhaps the most jarring: 10 of the country’s major meat producers—including big names like Tyson, Cargill, and Hormel—have supported efforts to fund climate denial, helped spread denier rhetoric, or donated to denier politicians or those who are against climate policy.
These companies are pretty big spenders. From 2000 to 2020, the study found, agribusiness giant Tyson gave more than $3 million to political campaigns. That’s a fraction of the $17 million Exxon spent over the same time period, but a significantly larger portion of Tyson’s revenue compared to Exxon’s. In the context of revenues, Tyson also spent 33% more on lobbying during this time period than Exxon.
Separating out the intent of some of these donations is a little tricky. As the report notes, much of this money was intended to “support a broad political agenda that include issues beyond climate change, including farm bill appropriations and subsidies.” But, Jacquet said, that money also filtered through trade associations that lobby against climate policy and went directly to support scientists who have publicly downplayed associations between the agricultural sector and global emissions.
“I underestimated the extent to which they were engaged on climate, specifically,” Jacquet said. “They’re working hard to minimize the link between what their companies do and climate change, and they’re also working very hard specifically to undermine climate policy. That feels sort of shady. That’s something the public deserves to know.”
And the public awareness may spread soon. Jacquet said that the focus on the specific companies outlined in this analysis is something she thinks is going to become very important as we ramp up efforts to get global greenhouse gas emissions under control.
“This conversation has not yet gotten as heated as I expect it will,” she said. “We’re turning up the dial on this.”
Less oxygen dissolved in the water is often referred to as a “dead zone” (in red above) because most marine life either dies, or, if they are mobile such as fish, leave the area. Habitats that would normally be teeming with life become, essentially, biological deserts. NOAA
By Shana Gallagher
What comes to mind when you think of Tyson Foods? A chicken nugget? A big red logo?
How about the largest toxic dead zone in U.S. history? It turns out the meat industry—and corporate giants like Tyson Foods—are directly linked to this environmental catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico, and many others.
Industrial-scale agriculture to support America’s livestock is the number one source of water pollution in the country. But while industrial agriculture to feed animals raised for meat is currently resource-intensive and ecologically destructive, it doesn’t have to be. Solutions exist which, if adopted, would allow the meat industry and agricultural corporations that sustain it to reduce their impact on water and the planet.
That’s why Mighty Earth has launched the Clean It Up, Tyson campaign in order to hold this industry accountable to our communities and the environment. Corporations can and should respect the health and well-being of their customers, and the landscapes that allow them to profit. Considering America’s current political climate, and the increasing severity of environmental problems across the globe, collective action and corporate-targeted campaigns like this one have never been more urgent.
In a country with five times as many livestock animals as humans, it takes a lot of land to grow feed for the meat that ends up on consumers’ plates. More than a third of America’s agricultural land is dedicated towards the production of corn and soy, but humans consume less than 10 percent of this, according to Mighty Earth’s campaign report. The vast majority is consumed by livestock.
What many people don’t realize is that this livestock feed production is controlled by a very small number of large and powerful corporations, making huge upstream profits, but creating massive downstream pollution. These companies—ADM, Bunge, Cargill (often referred to as the ABCs)—don’t have much of a public reputation, as they don’t sell directly to individual consumers. Under our current regulatory system, they’re also not responsible for their run-off or excess fertilizer use, both of which are classified as “non-point source” pollution. In other words, soil erosion and run-off from enormous swaths of America’s crop fields are washing into the waterways, and taxpayers shoulder the burden. These two factors mean that industrial agriculture companies operate with impunity while polluting the land, rivers and oceans.
A recent report by Environmental Working Group found that more than 200 million Americans—more than half of the people in our country—are exposed to contaminated drinking water due to fertilizer pollution. The estimated clean water costs to taxpayers are more than $2 billion per year. The nitrate and phosphorous in fertilizer that leaches into our drinking water are associated with various types of cancers, birth defects and other health problems. This burden disproportionately falls on rural communities, whose water treatment systems were not built to deal with the levels of chemicals they’re now facing.
“The EPA (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency) ordered Pretty Prairie, Kansas, to build a new water treatment plant last year to lower nitrate levels that could cost $2.4 million—well over $3,000 for every person in town,” EWG reported. “Eighty-five percent or more of the communities with elevated levels of nitrate have no treatment systems in place to remove the contaminant.”
Another alarming characteristic of industrial agriculture is that because it’s so intensive, fields are quickly exhausted, and the industry must continuously expand to new areas. For this reason, the American prairie and grassland ecosystems are being altered faster than the Amazon rainforest.
A recent University of Wisconsin study estimated that this loss of natural grassland “could have emitted as much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere as 34 coal-fired power plants operating for one year—the equivalent of 28 million more cars on the road,” noted Mighty Earth. These unique landscapes are among the most threatened in the world, and are irreversibly damaged after conversion into crop fields, often to grow corn and soy. At a time in our country when public lands are being attacked from many angles, industrial-scale agriculture to support the meat industry is the biggest challenge these ecosystems face.
Luckily, there are a number of simple, cheap and effective ways in which the meat industry could adopt sustainability measures into supply chains to and protect clean water. For example, currently less than 30 percent of fertilizer applied to massive industrial-scale crop fields is actually absorbed by the plants. Instead, most of this washes off as fertilizer pollution and contaminates waterways.
This is what has caused the largest dead zone in U.S. history in the Gulf of Mexico. It is currently more than 8,000 square miles, where no marine life can survive due to toxic fertilizer pollution. By using more precise application methods, farmers could save money on fertilizer, and less of it would contaminate the water. Additionally, techniques like using cover crops, diversifying crops beyond corn and soy, and limiting tillage are proven ways to reduce soil erosion.
P177 / Flickr
A few months ago, Mighty Earth conducted a comprehensive study into which areas of America are experiencing the worst water contamination from fertilizer pollution (Figure 1), and the most dramatic land conversion into livestock feed crop fields (Figure 2). This groundbreaking research also identified the agricultural and meat industry corporations most present in these areas. The clear culprit driving these destructive agricultural impacts was identified: Tyson Foods.
The country’s largest meat company, the second largest globally and the pioneer of the industrial meat system, Tyson Foods produces one in every five pounds of meat: more than 20 percent of all chicken, beef and pork. They are therefore uniquely placed to drive solutions, incentivize their suppliers to farm more responsibly, and reduce the catastrophic effects that industrial-scale agriculture has on the environment and public health.
“Recent commitments from a growing number of food companies like Kellogg’s, General Mills, Walmart, PepsiCo, and even Tyson’s competitor, Smithfield, are showing the way forward,” reported Mighty Earth. “These companies have committed to improve fertilizer and soil-health practices in their U.S. crop supply chains and have launched programs and practices that Tyson and other meat producers can adopt to drive improvements in their supply chains.”
Tyson Foods has the power to make these changes too, and therefore to change the entire meat industry for the better—and we have the power to ask them to do it.
Tyson’s prior commitments to sustainability are admirable, but don’t go far enough. With the demand for meat rising, and the threats to our environment increasing, the stakes could not be higher.
This issue affects all of us. As far back as 2013, the majority of American waterways were contaminated by fertilizer pollution, according to the EPA. That’s why Mighty Earth is organizing in communities across the country to ask Tyson to protect our water and our environment. By signing the petition or making a call to Tyson’s corporate headquarters (you can use our calling script for pointers), you can add your voice to the rising chorus calling for cleaner meat. Tyson Foods must lead the way to a more sustainable food system and protect the one planet we have.
Shana Gallagheris one of seven organizers around the U.S. launching Mighty Earth’s #CleanItUpTyson campaign.
Reposted with permission from our media associate AlterNet.
Thu 29 Oct 2020 10.00 EDTLast modified on Thu 29 Oct 2020 11.41 EDT
The world is in an “era of pandemics” and unless the destruction of the natural world is halted they will emerge more often, spread more rapidly, kill more people and affect the global economy with more devastating impact than ever before, according to a report from some of the world’s leading scientists.
The emergence of diseases such as Covid-19, bird flu and HIV from animals was entirely driven by the razing of wild places for farming and the trade in wild species, which brought people into contact with the dangerous microbes, the experts said.
“The risk of pandemics is increasing rapidly, with more than five new diseases emerging in people every year, any one of which has the potential to become pandemic,” the report says.
It estimates there are more than 500,000 unknown viruses in mammals and birds that could infect humans.
The current approach to disease outbreaks is trying to contain them and develop treatments or vaccines, which the scientists say is a “slow and uncertain path”. Instead the root causes must be tackled, including stopping the demolition of forests to produce meat, palm oil, metals and other commodities for richer countries.
The costs of such a transformative change would be “trivial”, the experts found, compared with the trillions of dollars of damage caused by the coronavirus pandemic alone. Their proposed solutions include a global surveillance network, taxing damaging meat production and ending taxpayer subsidies that ravage the natural world.
“There is no great mystery about the cause of the Covid-19 pandemic, or of any modern pandemic,” said Peter Daszak, the chair of the group convened by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, (Ipbes) to produce the report. “The same human activities that drive climate change and biodiversity loss also drive pandemic risk through their impacts on our environment.”
“We’re seeing pandemics every 20-30 years,” said Daszak, who is also the president of EcoHealth Alliance, and they were getting more frequent and damaging. “We can escape the era of pandemics, but this requires a much greater focus on prevention, in addition to reaction.”
The report was produced by 22 experts in fields including zoology, public health, economics and law, and representing every continent. It cites more than 600 studies, a third of which were published since 2019. “It’s really state of the art in terms of its scientific basis,” said Anne Larigauderie, the executive secretary of Ipbes.
The report says the rise in emerging diseases is driven by “the recent exponential rise in consumption and trade, driven by demand in developed countries and emerging economies, as well as by [rising population] pressure”.
Daszak added: “Clearly, in the face of Covid-19, with more than one million human deaths, and huge economic impacts, [the current] reactive approach is inadequate. There is enough science that shows a way forward and would involve transformative change that rethinks our relationship with nature.”
The scientists call for a high-level intergovernmental council on pandemic prevention to provide decision-makers with the best evidence, predict high-risk areas and coordinate the design of a global disease surveillance system.
High-risk species, such as bats, rodents, primates and water birds should be removed from the $100bn a year legal wildlife trade, they said, and there must be a crackdown on the illegal wildlife trade.
They also said emerging disease risk must be factored into decisions on large developments and called for meat production to be taxed. “Meat consumption is rising so dramatically, and it’s so clearly associated with pandemics,” Daszak said.
“Many of these policies may seem costly and difficult to execute,” the report says. “However, economic analysis suggests their costs [of about $50bn a year] will be trivial in comparison to the trillions of dollars of impact due to Covid-19, let alone the rising tide of future diseases.”
Daszak said: “For each of the policies there are pilot studies that show they work – they just need to be scaled up and taken seriously. This is classic public health – an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”
The report was widely welcomed by other experts. Guy Poppy, an ecology professor at Southampton University, said the report’s comprehensive analysis of solutions was valuable. “The link between planetary health and human health was already becoming increasingly recognised, but Covid-19 has brought it to the front of everyone’s minds,” he said.
Prof John Spicer, a marine zoologist at the University of Plymouth, said: “The Covid-19 crisis is not just another crisis alongside the biodiversity crisis and the climate change crisis. Make no mistake, this is one big crisis – the greatest that humans have ever faced.”Advertisementhttps://eb5ce15518e67ba61c7fbc06cd0fbfd3.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-37/html/container.html
But he said that by offering solutions the report “is a document of hope, not despair … the question is not can we [act], but will we?”
BERLIN (Project Syndicate)—The industrial meat system is out of control. Not only does it contribute to the destruction of the climate, biodiversity, soil, and forests, but it also poses a direct threat to human health.
Until the COVID-19 pandemic, the World Health Organization’s warnings about zoonotic diseases—caused by pathogens that are transmitted from animals to humans—were largely ignored. The same is true of antibiotic resistance—another global health threat closely connected to meat production.
Agricultural factors can be linked to more than 25% of all infectious diseases and more than 50% of all zoonotic infectious diseases in humans.
The World Organization for Animal Health estimates that 60% of all infectious diseases in humans are zoonotic. According to research published last year in Nature, this number will continue to increase as the world population rises and consumption patterns change. Changes in land use, such as deforestation and conversion to farmland, are also key factors influencing the transmission of zoonotic diseases to humans.
Human activity now affects 75% of the Earth’s land surface, with agricultural land—fields, pastures, or meadows—covering more than a third of the planet, and these numbers are growing rapidly. By intervening in and unbalancing natural ecosystems and shrinking wildlife habitats, we are disrupting the symbiotic relationship that has existed between humans and nature for thousands of years.
We know that the reduction of habitats, an ever-larger human presence, and the skyrocketing number of farm animals increase the possibility of infectious-disease transmission from animals to humans. Research published in Nature Sustainability showed that agricultural factors can be linked to more than 25% of all infectious diseases and more than 50% of all zoonotic infectious diseases in humans.
These figures will only worsen as intensive agriculture and factory farming continue to expand, and as monoculture and intensive animal husbandry shape future agriculture systems.
This is how meat should be consumed: not three times a day, maybe not even three times a week, but once or twice.
Another major reason for global changes in land use is the production of animal feed. For example, soy—an important protein source for industrial meat production—is planted on more than 120 million hectares globally, an area 3.5 times the size of Germany.
The WHO and the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) have long been warning about pandemics related to industrial livestock. While the global population has doubled over the past 50 years, global meat production has more than tripled. Today, around 300 million tons of meat are consumed worldwide.
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In 2017, there were an estimated 1.5 billion cattle, one billion pigs, 23 billion poultry animals, and two billion sheep and goats. These animals often live in groups of tens of thousands in small spaces, which can facilitate the spread of diseases, including bird flu and swine flu.
The U.N.’s Scientific Task Force on Avian Influenza and Wild Birds is convinced that highly infectious bird-flu viruses are not only transmitted by wild and migratory birds, but are also found on poultry farms, where they can be transmitted to wild animals. According to a 2016 statement by the task force, “There is no convincing evidence of any mechanism or wild bird species that is able to carry the H5N8 HPAI virus strains without causing the death of the carriers themselves during long-distance migration.” In contrast, “the risk of HPAI virus circulation by poultry production and trade remains significantly high.”
The threat of zoonotic diseases is not the only health risk related to meat production.
In addition to soy, heavy use of antibiotics is one of the most important features of meat production today. Experts estimate that by 2050, over 10 million people will die annually because antibiotics are no longer effective. According to the WHO, their widespread use in animal production is one of the most important causes of antimicrobial resistance. Government surveys of German supermarkets have found antibiotic-resistant pathogens in 66% of the chicken and 42.5% of the turkey on offer.
Furthermore, COVID-19 outbreaks in slaughterhouses worldwide show that meat production is based not only on environmental destruction and insufficient animal welfare, but also on exploitation of workers.
In Germany, most of these workers come from Eastern European countries and hardly speak the language. Most are subcontracted by companies in their home countries and lack regular labor contracts, which often limits their access to social services and health care. In June, more than 1,000 workers in Germany’s biggest slaughterhouse, owned by the country’s largest meat-processing company, were infected with COVID-19.
Addressing these issues requires targeting “less, but better” meat consumption. In Germany, people eat about 60 kilograms (132 pounds) of meat per person annually. The amount is even higher in the U.S., Australia, and some other European countries. (Americans eat twice as much.)
However, the majority of the global population eats much less meat, and less frequently. This is how meat should be consumed: not three times a day, maybe not even three times a week, but once or twice.
For years, politicians have largely ignored scientists’ health warnings about the meat industry. This year, the entire world has been forced to confront the importance of such warning signs.
A comprehensive transformation of our agricultural and food systems is clearly necessary, with policies that strengthen agroecology and encourage short, diverse, and resilient value chains. The scientific know-how to enact such measures has been available for years. We just need to use it.
WATERLOO — Wearing biohazard suits, activists gave an eerie performance at an animal-rights demonstration in Waterloo Town Square Sunday afternoon.
Silently, they held signs up over their heads naming various pandemics past, in order to bring attention to a connection between industrial animal farming practices and pandemic outbreaks.
Around them played the constant drone of air-raid sirens and a voice recording that repeatedly said: “This is not a drill. This is a warning. COVID-19 is a message.” played on repeat.
The protest organizers, K-W Animal Save, said the same scene was also played out at the same time in Toronto, Montreal and Ottawa.
A few passers-by stopped to take pictures. Patrons at nearby restaurant patio tables looked on.
The activists believe the current COVID-19 and many other global pandemics are caused by the industrial farming of animals.
Mo Markham, an organizer of the Waterloo protest, said this pandemic was predicted by global scientists and experts unless major changes were made.
She points the finger at wet markets where live animals are sold, and increasing amounts of industrial animal agriculture that encroaches on wild animal habitat and increases interaction between virus-carrying wild animals and livestock and humans.
In Australia and New Zealand, animal rights group are calling for a review of exporting live animals; 41 people are still unaccounted for
04 SEPTEMBER 2020 – 12:57 AINSLIE CHANDLER AND MASUMI SUGA
A Filipino crew member believed to be onboard Gulf Livestock 1 is rescued by a Japan Coast Guard boat. Picture: JAPAN COAST GUARD/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS
Sydney/Tokyo — A cargo ship with 43 crew and 5,800 cattle on board that overturned during stormy weather in the East China Sea has renewed concern about animal welfare issues in the live export trade in Australia and New Zealand.
The Japan coast guard continued rescue efforts with four patrol vessels and one aircraft on Friday, in a bid to find at least 41 crew members who are still missing. There are no plans to halt the search, the coast guard said.
The Gulf Livestock 1 capsized after engine trouble and as a powerful storm swept through the region, according to seafarer Sareno Edvardo, who was rescued on Wednesday. A second person pulled from the water on Friday was pronounced dead, according to the coast guard. The vessel was transporting cattle from New Zealand to China when it entered the path of Typhoon Maysak.
On Thursday, New Zealand suspended all live exports in the wake of the incident, local media reported. The government is already reviewing the industry and considering several options for new regulations including a potential total ban on specific types of exports. Any shipments of animals for slaughter already require the approval of the director-general of the Mmistry for primary industries.
New Zealand-based animal rights group SAFE called for a total ban on live exports. “This is a high-risk trade that puts the lives of animals at risk,” campaigns manager Marianne Macdonald said in a statement.
“Our thoughts are with the families who are missing their loved ones, but we have to recognise the risk to animals that the live export trade brings,” she added in a separate statement.
Australasian Global Exports, the Melbourne-based trading company that chartered the Panamanian ship, said in a statement that its primary concern is for the safety and well-being of the ship’s crew. It declined to comment further.
Rigorous approvals processes are in place for all live exports, from both an animal welfare and maritime perspective, Australian Livestock Exporters’ Council CEO Mark Harvey-Sutton said by phone on Friday. However, “now is not the time” for a debate on animal welfare in the sector. “The families are our priority at the moment.”
The animals on the Gulf Livestock were being shipped for use in China’s dairy industry, Harvey-Sutton said.
New Zealand’s livestock exports, including cattle, deer, goats and sheep, were worth about NZ$54m ($36m) in the year to end-June 2019, according to a government report. It exported about 23,500 cattle during the year, the bulk of which were shipped to China.
Australia’s live export sector is far bigger and is worth about A$800m ($580m) a year, according to the government. It shipped and air freighted almost 2.3-million live animals in the 2018/2019 financial year, including about 1-million sheep and 960,000 cattle, to destinations throughout Asia and the Middle East.
“The incident underscores the risks sometimes involved in conducting our agricultural trade both domestically and internationally,” Australia’s minister for agriculture, David Littleproud, said in an e-mailed statement. “These risks extend far beyond the farm gate.”
An unoccupied lifeboat drifts near Kodakarajima island. Japanese authorities are racing to find dozens of missing sailors from a cargo ship that sank in a typhoon.
10th Regional Coast Guard Headquarters/AFP via Getty Images
A second crew member has been found alive from a ship carrying livestock that capsized and sank during a typhoon off the southern coast of Japan. But another storm expected to hit the area over the weekend is likely to hamper the search for 40 other people still missing.
The Gulf Livestock 1, a 450-foot ship with a cargo of some 5,800 cows en route from New Zealand to China, issued a distress call early Wednesday Japan time near the island of Amami Oshima, north of Okinawa. The ship’s “mayday” was sent from an area affected by Typhoon Maysak, a powerful Category 4 storm.
Japan’s coast guard said Friday that it had rescued Jay-nel Rosals, a 30-year-old Filipino deckhand. Another crew member, chief officer Edvardo Sareno, who was initially identified as Sareno Edvarodo, was located on Wednesday.
Edvardo Sareno, a 45-year-old chief officer from the Philippines of the capsized ship The Gulf Livestock 1, is seen being rescued by Japan’s coast guard on Wednesday. So far, he is one of two survivors from the vessel’s crew of 43.
Japan Coast Guard, 10th Regional Coast Guard Headquarters
Rosals was wearing a life jacket and floating in a raft, the coast guard said without elaborating on his condition.
The two found alive are among the 39 crew listed as being from the Philippines. Two others are from New Zealand and two from Australia.
Earlier, a third crew member, who was not identified, was recovered from the water unconscious and facedown, a spokesman for the coast guard said, according to The Associated Press. The man was taken to a hospital, where he was pronounced dead.
Searchers also said they had found a fuel slick on the sea surface and dozens of floating animal carcasses.
After Sareno’s rescue on Wednesday, he told rescuers that the Gulf Livestock 1 was hit broadside by a large wave, capsized and sank. He managed to jump overboard wearing a life jacket but said he did not see any others escape from the sinking ship.
He reportedly asked rescuers: “I’m the only one?”
“I’m so sorry … [I’m] so lucky,” Sareno said, according to the AP.
The Panamanian-flagged vessel is owned and operated by the United Arab Emirates-based Gulf Navigation, which issued a statement about the disaster that was carried by media on Friday.
“Our hearts go out to those onboard and their families at this time,” a Gulf Navigation spokesman said. “We also express deep regret for the sad loss of the livestock onboard. We are monitoring the situation closely and working closely with those involved in rescue efforts. We pray that there are other survivors.”
Typhoon Haishen, bearing down on the same general area affected by Typhoon Maysak earlier this week, was likely to complicate the search for any remaining survivors. Japan’s Meteorological Agency forecasts that by Sunday, Haishen will passnear Okinawa, just south of where the Gulf Livestock 1 went down. The JMA said the storm has the potential to be even more dangerous than Maysak.
In a statement Friday, Foster Farms confirmed that eight of its workers had died from COVID-19, but implied those employees could have been infected outside the plant.
“It is important to recognize that the increase in positives at the Livingston complex occurred subsequent to the dramatic increases in Merced County,” the company said in a statement.
“Foster Farms’ comprehensive set of COVID-19 mitigations, promptly implemented following CDC guidance, can protect employees while they are on our premises, but we cannot fully protect them when they are exposed in the greater community.”
The company said of the eight fatalities: “We share the grief of their families and loved ones.”
“Due to the number of deaths and a need to quickly test both permanent and temporary employees at the Foster Farms Livingston Facility, the Merced County Health Officer has ordered the Foster Farms Poultry Processing Plant to close until the plant is able to reopen safely,” the health department said Thursday.
Merced County granted a 48-hour stay on the shutdown order to “help facilitate logistics associated with any necessary closure,” county spokesman Mike North said.
The two-day delay came after the county was called by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s secretary for food safety Thursday and told that the stay will end at 6 p.m. Saturday, North told NBC News on Friday.
Foster Farm’s statement on Friday did not address when — or even if — the company would comply with the county health order. A Foster Farms media representative declined to elaborate.
A USDA rep said Friday that the agency’s intervention was not unusual and happened only after consultation with other local, state and federal authorities.
“The call was productive and allowed all the parties to work out a path forward,” the USDA said in a statement. “The Merced County Department of Public Health made the decision to delay a shutdown of the plant for 48 hours to facilitate additional resources for COVID testing of plant employees and to ensure humane handling of the flocks at the facility.”
The Foster Farms plant in Livingston was open and operational Friday, according to three employees who answered phones at the facility Friday morning.
County health officials said in the statement that they had worked with the state health department and the state attorney general to try to help the company “limit the impact of the closure,” but that no agreement could be reached.
“Temporarily shutting down a food production facility is the last option available in getting this outbreak under control,” the statement said.
The county’s public health officer, Dr. Salvador Sandoval, said a temporary closure was necessary to bring the outbreak at the plant under control.
“In view of increasing deaths and uncontrolled COVID-19 cases, the decision was made to order the Livingston Plant within the Foster Farms Livingston Complex closed until acceptable safety measures are in place,” Sandoval said in the statement.
“Our charge is to protect the public’s health, even in the face of difficult decisions. The closure of this plant is the only way to get the outbreak at Foster Farms swiftly under control. Our hearts are with the eight families who have lost a loved one,” he said.
State Attorney General Xavier Becerra called the spread of the virus at the facility “alarming.”
“If we’re going to keep food on our tables during this pandemic, we must do a better job of protecting the essential workers who are putting it there,” Becerra said in the county statement. “Nobody can ignore the facts: It’s time to hit the reset button on Foster Farms’ Livingston plant.”
The actual spread of the coronavirus at the plant is unclear because the 358 known cases were largely among employees who chose to be tested or who voluntarily submitted test results, the statement said.
The facility currently has the most severe and longest-lasting of 16 outbreaks of the virus in the county, the statement said.
The Foster Farms plant was first officially declared to have an outbreak June 29, and at that time county health employees conducted a “courtesy walk-through” of the plant and gave recommendations, such as performing widespread testing of workers and changing employee break spaces, according to the statement.
The county health department continued to advise the plant during July about the need for widespread testing, particularly in two hard-hit departments.
But a site visit to the facility in early August by county health officials and state occupational health officials found that the recommendations made on June 29 had not been fully adopted, the county statement said.
Since then, “testing as required” by the health department has not been completed and “the spread of COVID-19 within the facility has not been contained and active outbreaks continue to exist, posing a significant threat to Foster Farms employees and the surrounding community,” the statement said.
PETA Will Buy the First Round—if Charlie’s Pizza House, R-Pizza Use Meat-Free Meat
For Immediate Release:
August 19, 2020
Megan Wiltsie 202-483-7382
Yankton and Vermillion, S.D. – Following reports of a pepperoni price spike caused by COVID-19, PETA sent letters this morning to two local pizza parlors affected by the shortage, urging them to use vegan pepperoni and cheese instead of the meat and dairy versions and offering to send a supply of the animal-free toppings to get them started.
“Considering other aspects of the pandemic, such as that zoonotic diseases may originate in live-animal markets and on factory farms, the national pepperoni shortage is an opportunity to rethink the pie and make it vegan,” says PETA President Ingrid Newkirk. “PETA is encouraging pizzerias to pivot to plants and leave meat and dairy toppings in the past.”
Blood- and offal-soaked factory farms and slaughterhouses in the U.S. are every bit as filthy as China’s “wet markets,” all of them breeding grounds for disease. Swine flu, bird flu, SARS, and now COVID-19 have all been linked to eating animals—and a new strain of swine flu with “pandemic potential” is now spreading from pigs to humans in China. The meat industry has allowed slaughterhouse workers to face a nearly unchecked spread of COVID-19.
In addition, vegans have a reduced risk of suffering from heart attacks, diabetes, obesity, cancer, and strokes than meat-eaters do—plus, they each save nearly 200 animals a year and maintain a smaller carbon footprint.
PETA—whose motto reads, in part, that “animals are not ours to eat” and which opposes speciesism, a human-supremacist worldview—recently purchased stock in major U.S. and Canadian slaughter companies to urge them to produce and pack exclusively vegan meats. The group has rounded up a long list, available here, of all the pizza chains currently offering healthy and humane vegan options.
In March of 2009, people in the rural Mexican village of La Gloria started coming down with a nasty respiratory infection. The town, located in the state of Veracruz, sat 5 miles from an industrial-scale hog farm. Within a few weeks, clusters of this rapidly progressing pneumonia arose among Mexico City residents. Researchers soon identified the bug as a “novel swine flu.” It quickly jumped to the United States and spread worldwide, and in June, the World Health Organization declared a pandemic, the first time it had done so since the deadly avian flu outbreak of 1968.
The 2009 swine flu strain didn’t turn out to be as deadly as originally feared. Although indeed novel, it was similar enough to older flu strains that about a third of people over 60—the most vulnerable population—had preexisting antibodies to the virus, helping them shake it off. Even so, it killed more than 284,000 people around the world, including at least 12,469 Americans.
We might not be so lucky next time. As the COVID-19 crisis lingers with no end in sight, it’s no fun to think about other emerging contagions that could be coming our way. But given the gaping holes the coronavirus fiasco has exposed in our infectious-disease response systems, it seems prudent to squarely face what’s coming down the pike—in hopes we can prepare to do better.
The likely source of the next pandemic is all around us: It’s the same one that triggered the 2009 scare. Industrial-scale hog and chicken farming—innovated in the United States and rapidly spreading globally—provides an ideal environment for the evolution and transmission of novel pathogens, especially influenza, that can infect people. (Cattle generally aren’t susceptible to human-adapted flus.)
“Another influenza pandemic occurring at some stage of the future is exceedingly high,” said Richard Webby, professor of infectious diseases at Memphis-based St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital and director of the World Health Organization’s Collaborating Center for Studies on the Ecology of Influenza in Animals. “The chances that it’ll come from some sort of farmed animal—my personal opinion is, that’s high as well.”
Gregory Gray, a professor of medicine, global health, and environmental health at Duke University and an expert on animal-to-human disease transmission, is even more direct. His biggest worry for the next viral pandemic? “Influenza A viruses that originate in pigs,” he said. “Hands down.”
The 2009 flu scare inspired the US government to ramp up its effort to monitor factory-scale farms for new pathogens, Gray added. But its surveillance was limited from the start, and in recent years has dwindled.
Pigs have a special capacity to incubate new viruses. Although birds are hosts to many kinds of influenza, avian flus don’t bounce easily to humans. There have been some exceptions: The 1997 H5N1 outbreak in Hong Kong sickened at least 18 people and killed six. But that event, as well as smaller outbreaks since, was relatively easy to control, because once the pathogen invaded the human immune system, it didn’t show much ability to spread person-to-person. Most infections involved people who had been in direct contact with birds.
Hogs are different. While pure swine flus don’t jump easily to humans, pigs can catch flu viruses that are from birds and humans, and then pass them back and forth. When more than one flu virus has infected a single host, the viruses have the sinister ability to swap genes, a process researchers call “reassortment.” Like DJs creating something new by grabbing and combining snippets from old vinyl records, flus use the bodies of pigs to make the viral equivalent of a mixtape. If a pig catches an avian flu and a human flu at the same time, the two viruses can morph into novel strains that contain swine, human, and avian genetic material, with the potential ability to infect all three species.
That’s why many epidemiologists call hogs “mixing vessels” for flu strains; they provide a host in which avian- and swine-evolved flus can reach people. And since human immune systems have little exposure to bird flus, it can be quite dangerous for us when genetic traces of these bird flus invade our bodies through a strain that was reassorted inside of a hog.
So scientists were alarmed earlier this summer when Chinese researchers published a paper in the peer-reviewed US journal PNAS reporting thatan “avian-like” swine flu strain had become pervasive in the nation’s vast hog operations, containing “all the essential hallmarks” of a virus that can cause a human pandemic. The team tested 338 workers who routinely come into contact with hogs and found that 10.4 percent had antibodies to the new strain, meaning they had unknowingly contracted and recovered from the virus. They also tested 230 people who aren’t associated with the hog industry and found antibodies in 4.4 percent of them. In other words, the virus is out there, infecting people and evolving; likely being swapped back and forth between workers and hogs.
The strain recently identified in China, known as G4 EA H1N1, is related to the H1N1 flu that caused the global pandemic in 2009. The 2009 strain contained genes from avian, swine, and human flus—a classic “triple reassortment.” It has also taken on avian genes through reassortment that makes it novel to our immune systems—meaning it could be very hard to fight.
The new flu hasn’t caused major problems yet; it hasn’t proven either highly contagious or particularly virulent. But that could change as it circulates among the workers and animals in China’s hog industry. The fact that it’s out in the world, the paper warns, “greatly enhances the opportunity for virus adaptation in humans and raises concerns for the possible generation of pandemic viruses.” The WHO’s Webby put it like this: “It’s a numbers game. These viruses throw out mutations every time they replicate, so the more chances the virus gets, the more interactions with humans, the more chance that one day the stars will align in the right order, the virus will get the right mutation, and take off.”
Changes in our eating habits and farming practices have dramatically ramped up pigs’ propensity to gin up new pathogens. Humans domesticated them at least 9,000 years ago, and we’ve probably been swapping flus with them ever since. But for almost that entire history, hog farming was essentially a backyard activity, with relatively few animals per operation, and broad genetic diversity in the population. The numbers game Webby describes exists when hogs are kept on a small scale, outdoors, with the herds largely isolated from each other. But what’s happening now is different.
Starting in the 1980s, US pork packers began to change their model, inspired by what the poultry industry had done decades before. Instead of buying hogs from small producers, meatpacking companies moved to a vertically integrated model, pushing to source their pigs from large, confined operations working under production contracts.
The shift turned the industry upside down. According to US Census of Agriculture figures, in 1982, 330,000 farms raised 55.4 million hogs. By 2017, just 66,000 farms were churning out more than 72 million pigs. In other words, 80 percent of US hog farms exited the business over that period even as total output jumped 21 percent—and so the average number of hogs per farm spiked from 168 to 2,000, a 12-fold increase. And that figure understates the scale of modern hog production. The 2017 Ag Census show that three-quarters of US hogs are raised on the 3,600 largest operations, each averaging more than 14,000 animals.
Today, an industrial-scale hog “barn” is an enclosed facility holdingas many as 4,440 pigs. A typical operation consists of several of these buildings clumped together, each with ventilation systems that have the potential to suck up airborne flu pathogens from each barn and pass them to the barn next door.
China’s pork sector, the globe’s largest, is rapidly mimicking the US model, though it’s at an earlierstage of the trajectory. Between 1975 and 2013, growth in China’s pork consumption rose by a factor of eight. (Though this growth has flattened in recent years.) Giant factory facilities took the place of the micro-scale operations that had sustained the region for centuries. In 2000, 74 percent of Chinese pork production came from backyard farms. By 2015, household sources were providing just 27 percent of the nation’s domestic pork. The contribution from commercial farms with at least 1,000 hogs, meanwhile, tripled over that decade.
What could possibly go wrong? Rob Wallace, an evolutionary biologist with the Agroecology and Rural Economics Research Corps and author of Big Farms Make Big Flu, argues that the industrial animal farming model delivers a perfect habitat for flus to proliferate, evolve, mutate, and adapt—to essentially hack the numbers game for creating pandemic strains. Factory-scale farms provide a huge playground for human and avian flus to “trade multiple combinations of genetic segments,” he said. They’re “an explosive evolutionary accelerant.”
For most of the 20th century, the flus circulating among US pigs didn’t evolve much genetically, meaning our immune systems had plenty of time to adapt the ability to fight them off. It wasn’t until the 1990s—when the consolidation of US hog production was reaching a crescendo—that pig flus began to reassort wildly with human and avian flus and create new strains that can jump to people. In a prescient paper he co-authored with other researchers, published five years before the 2009 outbreak, the WHO’s Webby sounded the alarm. “The influenza reservoir in the United States swine population has thus gone from a stable single viral lineage” to a “dynamic viral reservoir containing multiple viral lineages,” making the US swine population an “increasingly important reservoir of viruses with human pandemic potential,” they wrote.
In addition to capitalizing on the sheer number of potential hosts breathing in each other’s exhalations and excretions in a modern hog facility, viruses also take advantage of the pigs’ genetic similarity. With a genetically diverse drove, some pigs will have a mutation in their immune systems that blocks infection, limiting the pathogen’s range. But “if you’ve got a couple thousand genetically similar hogs packed in a barn, then it’s all food for flu,” Wallace said. As the industry breeds hogs to deliver consistent, uniform pork products, the geneticdiversity of hog populations erodes, and what Wallace calls an “important firewall” to developing pandemic flu strains crumbles.
The workers who tend these pigs are prime targets for moving the virus into surrounding communities. And global trade ensures that the flu can travel the world. “The United States and Canada, the largest exporters of hog, are also the largest exporters of swine flu,” Wallace said. After the North American Free Trade Agreement of 1994, Mexico began to dramatically scale up its own hog sector, leaning heavily on hogs imported from the United States and Europe. That flow of hogs and their attendant flus is the likely source of the 2009 triple-assorted pandemic strain, a 2016 analysis by US, Mexican, and European researchers shows. Wallace also points to a 2015 Naturestudy by a global team led by US National Institutes of Health researchers with a chart showing how flu bugs circulating on US farms disperse globally:
The US pork industry, for its part, asserts that the workers who tend hogs are unlikely to swap viruses with them, because hog farmers follow stringent biosecurity measures. “Modern US pig barns are designed specifically for pig health and safety,” Jason Menke, director of marketing communications for the National Pork Board, wrote in an email. Farmers wear special boots and clothing that stay in the barn. Many farms require caretakers to shower in special facilities attached to the barn, which “minimizes the chance that the pigs will be exposed to a pathogen that will make them ill.” Workers are also “encouraged” to wear personal-protective gear like masks to “protect themselves from both illness and injury working on the farm,” Menke wrote. He added that “sick leave policies encourage workers to stay home when ill to prevent unnecessarily exposure to other workers on site or to the pigs, since pigs can be infected with human influenza strains.”
But no biosecurity system is perfect, Wallace counters. In a 2015 paper looking at flu strains circulating on US pig farms, the National Institutes of Health and US Department of Agriculture researchers found that, despite the industry’s biosecurity efforts after the 2009 H1N1 pandemic, industry workers “continuously” kept reinfecting the US hog herd with their flus. That meant hogs, mixing vessels for human and bird flus, got a steady infusions of human-adapted flus, free to re-assort and create novel strains that can infect people.
Wallace thinks that factory-scale livestock farming inherently generates viral pandemic threat, and should thus be dismantled—a view that gained political traction late last year when Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) floated a bill that would do just that. Booker’s proposal, which has since gained support from Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), remains unlikely to pass; the meat industry wields massive lobbying power in Washington. But as Ezra Klein recently reported in Vox, an “odd-bedfellows coalition” of animal-rights activists, economic populists, and small-scale farmers is rallying around it.
Mainstream university-based flu researchers are far more cautious about challenging the industry so directly. While Duke’s Gray insisted that the next pandemic might come from hogs, he does not advocate for banning industrial hog farming. “We have some of the safest and lowest-cost pork production in the world, and that’s wonderful,” he said. “And we are exporting that technology to many places around theworld and they’re all shifting to large-scale farming—it’s the way to go to keep the hogs safe and produce low cost meat.”
He adds, however, that the pork industry and the US Department of Agriculture—which regulates the safety of meat production—aren’t doing enough to monitor the viral pathogens that can flourish on large hog operations. Through surveillance, researchers can see what’s out there and kick-start the development of human vaccines when novel strains emerge.
Back in 2010, in response to the previous year’s pandemic, the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), a division of the US Department of Agriculture, launched a program to monitor and analyze flus circulating in the hog population. It’s an important but limited effort, Gray said. It relies on hog producers and veterinarians to swab animals showing flu symptoms (coughing, sneezing, runny nose, etc.) and send them in to USDA-affiliated labs. Gray characterized the program as “very spotty” because of its focus on “passive” testing, which relies on farmers to volunteer samples from sick animals.
Active testing, on the other hand, would randomly select samples from both visibly sick and asymptomatic animals. “There are influenza viruses that infect both humans and pigs [but] do not necessarily cause signs of infection in both,” he said. Similar to how people can be infected with COVID-19 and spread it without showing symptoms, pig flu often hides in animals that appear healthy. “Hence, I have long argued that passive surveillance among only sick pigs has the potential to miss novel emerging swine influenza viruses that may harm humans.”
The US hog industry is “really good” at detecting and preventing the spread of diseases that make pigs sick and lower production, Gray says. But viruses that don’t directly harm hogs—including those that might do worse damage to humans—”are tolerated, permitted to spread and to mutate.”
Worse still, Gray adds, as the 2009 flu pandemic recedes into the past, funding for the APHIS surveillance program—and the participation of hog farmers—has dwindled. In the agency’s most recent report on the program, released in July 2020, total samples received from farmers peaked in 2015 at 35,792 and had fallen to 3,098 in 2019. An APHIS spokesperson attributed the drop to changes made in 2016 to shift costs from the USDA budget on to hog farmers.
Meanwhile, influenzas aren’t the only viruses that circulate on hog farms. Coronaviruses do, too—like the porcine epidemic diarrhea virus, which killed 10 percent of US hogs in 2013-14. (PEDV does not infect humans). As for SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus causing the current COVID-19 pandemic, a study released in June by Chinese researchers found that pigs are at least theoretically susceptible: They have lung and kidney cells that can be invaded by this particular pathogen. But laboratory attempts to infect pigs with it have so far not succeeded. “Given that the COVID-19 pandemic is still progressing and SARS-CoV-2 strains are constantly evolving,” they wrote, “we need to keep monitoring and evaluating the possibility of pigs to become intermediate hosts” of the pathogen.
Gray finds the prospect of hog-adapted SARS-CoV-2 daunting. As they do for flu, pigs could emerge as what disease researchers call a “reservoir” for the pathogen—a large host population that keeps the pathogen circulating, giving it more opportunity to infect people. “My chief concern is that the current SARS-CoV-2 virus adapts to commercial hogs, becomes amplified in them, and causes widespread infections, increasing the risk of the virus moving from the pigs to infect humans who have not been previously infected,” he said. He expressed an even darker possibility: The “remote chance” that if it does manage to enter the pig population, it could mutate into something different, yet another “novel coronavirus” that would require a whole new scramble for a vaccine.
“Honestly, I don’t know if we’re much better off post-2009 than we were pre-2009,” the WHO’s Webby said. Governments devoted resources to preventing the next big flu outbreak for a few years, but interest faded as the event receded into the past, he said. With COVID-19, “we’re really seeing for the first time in most people’s living memory the impacts these pandemics can have on society. So I’m hoping a silver lining from this will be more sustained resources into preparedness.”
Another possibility would be to rethink how we produce meat. The coronavirus pandemic has sparked calls to ban “wet markets”—the informal food markets that often include live wild animals, the possible point at which SARS-CoV-2 jumped from bats to people. As Wallace points out, globally, the biomass of the animals we eat—their sheer physical weight—is now “far greater” than their wild counterparts. “Planet Earth is basically Planet Farm,” he said. “When you populate the globe with cities of hogs and poultry, you’re going to generate novel pathogens” that confound human immunology, he added. Maybe the fear of another pandemic will finally force us to ramp down the scale of our livestock operations and adapt to diets that depend on way less meat.