A scientific report from the World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA), 'Industrial animal agriculture - the next global health crisis?', highlights the real danger that factory farming poses to human health and animal welfare, particularly in developing countries. The report is presented at a World Health Organization (WHO) conference in Mexico.

Industrial animal agriculture has acted as a 'launch pad' for zoonotic diseases such as Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE), avian flu and Nipah virus. Scientists predict that as industrial agriculture continues to move into tropical environments, the risk from diseases that can jump the species barrier is growing. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization, the spread of one such disease, avian flu, may have been facilitated by the rapid scaling-up of poultry and pig operations and the massive geographic concentration of livestock from industrial farms in Thailand, Vietnam and China.

Since January 2004, avian flu has killed 28 people in Vietnam and Thailand. The outbreak recently spread to Malaysia and has so far cost billions of dollars and the loss of over 100 million chickens in South East Asia. Factory farming remains the fastest growing method of animal production worldwide, with developing countries set to be the world's leading producers of meat by 2020. However, the crowded and often unsanitary conditions in factory farms can make ideal breeding grounds for disease.

Leah Garces, WSPA Campaigns Director and co-author of the report, said, "Much is at stake if we fail to ensure the health and welfare of the animals that we farm. Intensive farming practices that have become the subject of increasing controversy and legislation in Europe and North America are being exported into the developing world. This is causing widespread suffering to farm animals, as well as often presenting an increasing disease risk to animals and humans. We need to stop this cruelty in its tracks if we are to have a fighting chance of preventing further disease outbreaks."

Intensively farmed animals are often routinely fed antibiotics. According to WHO, such widespread use of these drugs in the livestock industry is helping to breed antibiotic-resistant microbes, and making it harder to fight diseases amongst both animals and humans alike.

The European Commission's Scientific Steering Committee has proposed to ban all antibiotic growth promoters from 2006, due to concern over antibiotic resistance. However, the use of antibiotics continues to rise globally and usage by poultry producers has risen by over 300% per bird since the 1980s. In the US alone, over 12,000 tonnes of antibiotics are used each year. In a recent statement, the American Public Health Association called for a moratorium on the construction of new industrial animal farms until more scientific data on their risks has been collected.

WSPA urges the WHO and other public health institutes to ensure that policy advice does not promote or otherwise encourage the growth of industrial animal agriculture.

WSPA is calling for industrial animal agriculture to be phased out in favour of more humane and sustainable farming, on public health and animal welfare grounds. WSPA's recommendations include:

  • A halt to the expansion of factory farms
  • The adoption of humane and sustainable forms of farming
  • A global ban on the use of antibiotic growth promoters and production enhancing hormones