Editor’s note: This column is published here with the permission of the author, Leah Garcés

Over the past few months, news reports of China’s African swine fever problem, which is decimating the country’s pig population, has dominated agriculture and trade headlines. The disease outbreak has affected markets across the globe, from Brazil to the United States to Europe, as China is a pork powerhouse. At any one moment, China houses half of all pigs in the world — up to 700 million animals — and scientists estimate that as many as half could be infected and killed once the epidemic has taken its full toll. As the world grapples with a shortage of Chinese pork and crashing demand for the soy fed to these pigs, the question is this: How can we avoid these catastrophes in the future?

Some U.S. farmers are looking to cash in on the Chinese hog crisis, but that’s like throwing stones when you live in a glass house. While African swine fever hasn’t made it to the United States yet, we’ve had our share of disease outbreaks that have roiled rural America, resulting in severe economic loss and market disruptions. 

No industry better illustrates the precarious nature of our food system than the chicken meat industry, which essentially is the meat industry, considering 90 percent of all farmed land animals are chickens. Chicken is America’s favorite protein, and our consumption and production are higher today than they’ve ever been. These animals are packed wall to wall in dark warehouses across the country, living on their own feces, until they are transported to slaughter and eventually end up on our dinner plates. 

The warehouses are breeding grounds for many diseases, from headliners like campylobacter and salmonella to lesser-known but equally menacing ones. One such bacterial disease, “gangrenous dermatitis,” infects soft tissue and causes feather loss, dark red or blue-green lesions, and areas of macerated skin. Once infected, birds can die within 24 hours. Gangrenous dermatitis has been described as the “number one health problem” facing U.S. chicken companies. 

Other causes for concern are diseases stemming from the birds’ unnaturally fast growth rate. Chickens have been selectively bred to grow very large very fast to satisfy our desire for cheap breast meat. The result is muscle disorders such as “woody breast,” “white striping,” and an even stranger one called “spaghetti meat.” The names say it all. And while there is no threat to humans here, the texture and appearance make the meat inedible. Conservatively, these conditions have cost the industry more than $200 million per year.

Chicken warehouses supply most of America’s protein, but they are treated more like biohazard waste sites than the origins of our food. Our chicken production system is so fragile and the birds so immunologically incompetent — due to overcrowding and stress — that to simply tour one of these facilities, one must wear the equivalent of a hazmat suit to prevent disease entry from the outside. 

Given how common animal disease outbreaks are and how disruptive they can be for consumers, companies, and animals, it’s disappointing to hear that in the wake of yet another epidemic, this time in China’s hog farms, meat industry executives are preparing to do more of the same: make industrialized animal farms “even more” biosecure. But disease always finds a way. All it takes is one bacterium or virus on the edge of an article of clothing or the tip of an exposed boot for disease to explode in these settings and spread like wildfire to neighboring countries. For example, this recent outbreak of African swine fever in China has spread to Vietnam, Mongolia, Korea, Cambodia, and Laos.

Despite industry’s best efforts, animal disease pandemics continue to plague our food system, destabilizing trade and markets and causing product shortages and even more animal suffering. We now face two choices. The first is the status quo: keep packing more and more animals into closer and closer quarters, throwing artilleries of protective measures at them — from visitors wearing biohazard suits to routine dosing with antibiotics and extra biosecurity regimes—all to meet the protein demands of a population set to reach nearly 10 billion by 2050. We can hope for the best and prepare for the worst, including the real possibility that diseases will jump the species barrier and cause a human pandemic. 

Or we could take a cold, hard look at our protein production systems and think critically about what they give us in exchange for what they take from us. We could reinvent protein production altogether. 

This second choice is the smarter and more profitable one. With products like the Impossible Burger now in Burger Kings nationwide, the Just Egg only a click away on Amazon Now, and Beyond Meat’s 20-year record IPO, the question becomes this: Why risk it? 

In 2015, 87 percent of birds infected with avian flu were egg-laying hens. This caused a major egg shortage and a movement among companies to eliminate eggs from their offerings or explore plant-based products like Just Egg. But still, each year as fall approaches, egg farmers across the country go on lockdown, doing everything in their power to ward off another avian flu outbreak. 

Instead of waiting for calamity to strike, why not make a proactive shift away from this fragile, disease-laden protein production model? 

After all, major meat producers from Smithfield to Tyson to Perdue are now incorporating plant-based meat into their product lines. This is the ultimate win-win. The time is ripe to reboot our protein supply and create one that doesn’t require us to wear a biohazard suit.

About the author: Leah Garcés is the president of Mercy For Animals and author of Grilled: Turning Adversaries into Allies to Change the Chicken Industry.

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