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Factory farms are an ideal breeding ground for the next pandemic

One researcher says we are “playing Russian roulette.”

Swine flu under an electron microscope.
Swine influenza under an electron microscope.
BSIP/UIG Via Getty Images

We’ve seen the devastating effects of a pandemic firsthand: the loss of human life, the economic toll, and the impact on everything from mental health to children’s education.

Which is why, as Covid-19 spread, people looked for a way to prevent future outbreaks.

In the US, people started to call for the closure of “wet markets” overseas. Some research suggested that the many different species living closely together in these markets might have allowed the virus to mutate and jump to humans.

But Martha Nelson, who studies viruses at the National Institutes of Health, says that if we’re really serious about preventing a future pandemic, we also need to look closer to home.

“I think it’s really easy to think that pandemics come from other places,” she explains, “I think it’s really easy to think that they’re foreign invaders coming from other people who were doing things in a bad way. And I certainly would never underplay the importance of wet markets and all the opportunities for novel pathogens to emerge there. But I think it’s sometimes hard to see things in your own backyard.”

On this episode of the Future Perfect podcast, Nelson explains the pandemic risk lurking on factory farms in the US.

Nelson has studied our system of raising pigs closely, and she argues that by moving pigs across the country and raising large numbers of pigs in very close proximity, we’re creating ideal conditions for a dangerous influenza virus to develop. And since she’s also seen how easily pigs can spread novel viruses to humans, she’s even more concerned.

Given the frequency of pig to human transmission, she says, we’re “playing Russian roulette” with our current system of factory farming animals.

Further reading:

This podcast is made possible thanks to support from Animal Charity Evaluators. They research and promote the most effective ways to help animals.

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