By now, many people are well-aware of the personal health consequences of the overconsumption of meat, eggs, and dairy. But people are generally not so well versed on the public health impacts of confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs for short, or so-called “factory farms”). Here are just a few:
- Contamination of drinking water: The 133 million tons of manure produced annually (that’s 13 times what humans produce)—and the pharmaceuticals and pathogens they contain—has to go somewhere! And, regrettably, it isn’t uncommon for its contaminants to leech into aquifers or leak into surface water supplies and contaminate drinking water in agricultural regions. Those affected can experience increased rates of gastrointestinal illness, “blue-baby syndrome,” hyperthyroidism, insulin-dependent diabetes, adverse reproductive health outcomes such as neural tube defects, and—new research suggests—possibly cancers of various sorts. (Burkholder et al., 2007)
- Rabies: Yes, rabies. Among other zoonotic (read: transmitted from non-human animals to humans) diseases. The proliferation of commercial animal agriculture in parts of South America has been accompanied by a boom in the population of bats, which have been feeding on beef cattle. Unfortunately for the people living in those parts of the continent, bats can carry a host of zoonotic diseases, including rabies. As might be expected then, outbreaks of vampire-bat-transmitted human rabies outbreaks are on the rise and have even outnumbered the annual number of cases caused by dogs! (Streicker et al., 2012)
- Antibiotic resistance: Antibiotic resistance has emerged as a leading public health concern and has been directly linked to the overuse to antibiotics. Speaking of overuse, did you know that about one-third of the antibiotics used in the United States each year is added to agricultural animal feed to increase growth and to fight the ailments that flourish in CAFOs? Those antibiotics then end up in animal wastes and also in our food. Their use in agricultural animals also facilitates the development of antibiotic resistant pathogens in the animals themselves, which may then spread to humans. (Smith, Harris, Johnson, Silbergeld, & Morris, 2002)
Luckily, there are easy ways to mitigate your risk and your contribution to the aforementioned problems. It’s as simple as choosing to limit your consumption of animal-derived foods. Many people see a vegetarian/vegan diet as an all-or-nothing commitment, but there’s no reason it has to be. By limiting your consumption of animal-derived foods—whether you give those things up altogether or not –you not only spare your health, but that of others and of the environment we all share.