For many East Asians, the Year of the Pig, which lasts from February 2019 through February 2020, is particularly auspicious. It rounds out the 12-year Zodiac cycle, and those born during the year are said to be successful, resilient, and friendly people.
Less auspicious for this year is the African swine fever epidemic now spreading across China and Southeast Asia. It has already resulted in the deaths of more than 1.2 million pigs in China, plus another two million recently culled in Vietnam. Ultimately, up to 140 million pigs may succumb to the disease or be killed to control it and protect China’s pork industry — the world’s largest — from collapse. That’s about one-fifth of the nearly 700 million pigs raised for slaughter in China each year (and more than all the pigs killed for food in the U.S. annually).
This is neither the first nor probably the last zoonotic epidemic to occur. (A zoonotic disease is one that can be transmitted from animals to people.) Blue ear disease ravaged pigs in China in 2007, and the SARS virus in 2002 that affected the People’s Republic and 25 other countries likely originated in animals.
So far, the swine fever has not jumped the species barrier to humans, but there’s little reason for complacency. Reports have been circulating recently of pigs in China being buried or even burned alive as part of desperate efforts to contain the disease. We’ve also had recurring outbreaks of avian flu, including some strains that can infect humans. The global pandemic of 1918 that killed more than 50 million people began in birds, and epidemiologists believe we’re overdue for a similar catastrophe.
Zoonotic diseases are among the many risks posed by industrial animal agriculture, and these risks need to be addressed. They provide more evidence that the factory farming system needs to be radically reformed.
Its scale is too vast: More than 70 billion land animals are slaughtered around the world each year, plus trillions more fish. Violent weather can also contribute to horrific losses among large concentrations of farm animals. For example, thousands of pigs and more than three million chickens and turkeys drowned in North Carolina factory farms last year after Hurricane Florence.
It’s unaccountable: Citizens and communities pay for Big Ag’s pollution of the air and water, the loss of forests, and the erosion of topsoil. Industrial animal agriculture has decimated rural economies, swallowing up independent farmers or making “contractors” of those who remain.
It’s anti-ecological: It has driven out agricultural diversity, biodiversity, and potential carbon sinks like forests and other ecosystems in favor of monocultures of farmed animals and the crops that feed them (such as soybeans and corn), all of which will come under further stress due to climate change. Fully a third of Earth’s land surface and three-quarters of our fresh water are consumed producing animals for food along with feed crops. The global livestock sector is also a major emitter of climate warming greenhouse gases (GHGs).
And it doesn’t even feed the world well: Food insecurity — a lack of access to sufficient and nutritious food that’s affordable — still affects nearly a billion people worldwide. The unhealthy diets of these people, full of sugar, processed foods, and saturated fat, are creating a global epidemic of malnutrition. Already stretched health systems are straining under the challenge of treating rising incidences of non-communicable diseases (NCDs).
And finally, there is the massively compromised welfare of the animals themselves. Most farm animals spend their entire, abbreviated lives in confinement, where they are often mutilated and unable to move.
So, what to do? The irony is that genuine solutions are either available now or likely will be soon. United Nations agencies, some governments, researchers, and official advisory bodies (including one in China) are urging people to eat less meat to reduce GHGs and enhance their own health. Many cultures have long traditions of plant-centered cuisine, with meat considered a condiment instead of taking up the center of the plate. East Asian dishes of tofu, tempeh, and seitan are familiar to all of us.
A pork sausage developed from cell cultures has passed the proof-of-concept phase, and Shiok Meats, the first Southeast Asian cellular agriculture company, launched in January of this year. In the U.S., Europe, Israel, India, and elsewhere, new plant-based meats, milk, and cheeses are being developed that could — if done well — reduce the environmental footprint of food, promote healthier diets, and support more sustainable and equitable agricultural systems.
Private investors, whether in Chicago or Shanghai, shouldn’t support factory farming or monocultures of feed crops. They should be held accountable for their actions, or inactions. Agroecology (agriculture that seeks to regenerate soil and increase biodiversity) and organic and veganic ways of farming need much more support from governments, agricultural training programs, and extension services.. Instead of blindly accepting the spin of agribusiness lobbyists or their apologists, we should allow farmers and rural communities to define their own priorities and challenges.
The logic of the animal-industrial complex has always been that consolidation, mass production, and repurposing public goods like land and water to produce more cheap meat, dairy, and eggs will, at some point, mitigate the cruel and potentially catastrophic consequences of that logic. But “at some point” has a time limit. Last year, the UN’s lead climate-change panel concluded that governments of the world have only a dozen years to adopt far-reaching policies to lower GHG emissions to meet the Paris Agreement’s goal of keeping global surface temperatures to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.
That means, the next time the Year of the Pig rolls around in 2031, we as a species will have made a decision. We will either have allowed our wish to live “high on the hog” to threaten the future of us all, or we’ll be decarbonizing our system, including shifting away from factory farming toward plant-based agriculture. In doing the latter, we will, with any luck, have consigned to history the horrific, wasteful, and wholly unnecessary destruction of life that is the factory farming system. And we’ll be celebrating the Year of the Pig in a whole new way.
Mia MacDonald is the executive director of Brighter Green, an environmental think tank based in New York that works on food systems and climate change in China and globally. She also teaches about food and sustainability at Columbia University’s Earth Institute.
Gene Baur is president of Farm Sanctuary and an associate professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.