Monday, August 28, 2006

The link between intensive farming and human health

Zoonotic diseases that transmit from animals to humans are nothing new. Viruses have been jumping the species barrier through history, but modern industrial farming practices could increase the risk.

Given the widespread use of industrial farming in the EU, the potential for the emergence of new zoonotic diseases would appear to be high. Intensified animal production is creating a narrowing genetic base, particularly in dairy animals, poultry and pigs.

The economic imperative to make more use of high-yielding breds favours the spread of recessive genes responsible for traits such as poor immunity. According to Tony Hart, co-director of the National Centre for Zoonosis Research at the University of Liverpool, 'Livestock are highly inbred to produce maximum yield in the shortest time. This creates animals which are prone to become carriers of disease.'

Conditions on farms can promote the development of highly resistant strains of bateria, turning crowded pens into areas where there is a high risk of disease and increasing the risk of transmission to humans. There have been some positive developments such as the outright ban in January of the routine use of antibiotics in feed for growth promotion purposes.

Nevertheless, Dil Peeling, senior officer at the Eurogroup for Animal Welfare says, 'We expect to see an increase in the use of antibiotics on farms. The routine use of antibiotics may be banned. But, in the same system, animals are kept in stressful conditions that reduce immunity. In some cases, genetically they have less immunity, so we are forced to rely more on biosecurity [antibiotics] when minor diseases come up.'

According to Peeling, CAP with its historical emphasis on quantity rather than quality continues to drive harmful industrial practices. It could be argued that the reformed CAP is trying to place a great emphasis on quality, including animal welfare. Fischler was the first farm commissioner to introduce this theme into the debate, but Peeling believes that the CAP has gone backwards since then.

Certainly there is a risk of accession states learning bad lessons. 'New accession states believe that the future of agriculture must be the same as that which they have seen in Western Europe. They are not learning from old mistakes, so we're seeing funds going towards intensification,' says Peeling.

The BSE scare shook up European agriculture and contributed substantially to the public resistance to GM crops. Another crisis could reinforce demands for higher standards of animal welfare, although farmers would argue that in the interests of a level playing field there should be some tightening of standards in relation to goods imported into the EU.