UCSF Sustainability Stories

Ana Toepel, Green Impact, June 2020

Is the Pandemic Calling for a Change in Meat Production and Consumption?

One of the things this current pandemic calls into question is our way of producing and eating animals, with articles popping up in the news on the health impacts of factory farming, the problems with our reliance on large meat packing operations, and the push to ban large scale factory farms. A recent article in Time, “We Need to Rethink Our Food System to Prevent the Next Pandemic,” outlines how disease-causing microbes can “spillover” from other species into humans and how our modern food production systems increase the chance of this happening, especially when it comes to factory farming, where animals are densely packed and often near genetic clones of each other. The article explains that this situation makes pathogens become more virulent and points to the relationship between meat production and several viral outbreaks that have occurred this century, including the swine and avian flus.

We spoke with Dr. Michael Martin, UCSF Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics, about his perspective on meat’s impact on pandemics, and on personal and planetary health. Dr. Martin, who has conducted research on the use of antibiotics in animal agriculture and is the founder and president of Physicians Against Red Meat (PhARM), agrees that our current meat production and consumption is problematic. “The use of antibiotics in meat induces anti-biotic resistant bacteria. Animals in factory farms often have compromised immune systems, and diseases can race through “the herd” and then move from one species to the next, becoming more lethal as they move, and even spreading to humans.” Dr. Martin also believes there are multiple problems associated with red meat specifically: climate change, health issues, pollution, and working condition issues. He started PhARM “to get this information out to people and encourage them to reconsider their red meat consumption, in an effort to both improve individual health and the health of our planet.”

Three Reasons to Reconsider Your Meat Consumption

A piece in the New York Times last month details the social and environmental issues associated with meat. Beyond avoiding the harmful practices of factory farming, there are other aspects to take into account when making choices about buying and eating meat. Here are a few of them:

Meat Packing Plant Workers
The pandemic has brought to light “another distressing reality of factory farming…the way it tends to treat not only animals but also human workers as widgets in a large machine,” as reported in an April Vox article. The article notes the disproportionate risk of contracting COVID 19 that workers in meat plants face due to their working conditions. Some plants were closed due to high numbers of cases and some workers have staged walk-outs over their working conditions and the predicament they are put in, which are described in a Washington Post video. Senator Cory Booker, who is sponsoring a bill with Senator Elizabeth Warren to phase-out large scale factoring farming, says in a Newsweek article that meatpacker profits are prioritized over the health and safety of workers. 

Climate Change
As we shared in a previous story, the most recent Eat-Lancet Commission report names global food production as the largest driver of environmental degradation on our planet. Large-scale livestock production, specifically, is responsible for 14.5% of all human sources of greenhouse gases, according to a 2018 Food and Water Watch report. Dr. Martin explained that because methane, which cows produce, is such a powerful greenhouse gas (86 times more than CO2), beef production contributes to climate change. He shared that “this is something we can act on quickly by changing our diets; it’s the low hanging fruit in terms of addressing climate change.” Outlined in an article in the Guardian, demand for beef also contributes to environmental degradation and climate change through conversion of the rainforest into pasture for cattle farming. 

Below we include several resources that explain how meat may play a role in the development and spread of pandemics, as noted above. A PhARM video reports that the CDC estimates 75% of all emerging infectious diseases come from animals. It also explains how meat production can increase the risk of vector-borne illnesses because of its contribution to global warming. Additionally, many lifestyle-related diseases (such as diabetes, heart disease, and strokes) are linked to the animal products we eat; meat can change the bacterial profile in our gut so it becomes harmful rather than helpful. Processed red meats, specifically, have been classified by the WHO as carcinogenic. Dr. Martin explained that cancer risks are calculated per serving of meat, so there is a decrease in risk with decreased servings. He expressed, “There are health benefits to limiting consumption of red meat.” 

What You Can Do
Watch PhARM’s video on the connection between meat and pandemics. PhARM’s website also has articles on red meat and mortality.

Pledge to not eat red meat or to cut down on eating red meat. If you make animal product purchases, choose pasture-raised and humanely-raised whenever possible.

If you’re at UCSF, ask your department to join the beef-free initiative if they haven’t already. Push for an increase in sustainable food purchases for cafeterias and patient care. 

Learn more about the problems with factory farming:

One Root Cause of Pandemics Few People Think About

Link Between Factory-Farmed Animals, COVID 19 and Preventing the Next Pandemic

We Have to Wake Up: Factory Farms are Breeding Grounds for Pandemics 

The Meat We Eat is a Pandemic Risk, Too