Photo: Pigs in a Holding Pen

by Michele McKay

Reminders about swine flu re-emerge with flu season: Be sure to wash hands, cover sneezes, avoid contact with others, and eat a healthy diet. These measures are important and effective in preventing the spread of flu viruses. But let’s step back and take a look at what’s behind swine flu… its source, its affect on the health of our planet, and what we can do in the “big picture” to prevent its social, environmental, and ethical consequences. Huge factory farms, known in the industry as Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs), raise thousands of animals under severely crowded conditions for the purpose of slaughter. Researchers recognize that intensive and filthy pig CAFOs are the source of swine flu, as well as being potential sources of new and dangerous viruses that could infect humans. Moreover, intensive meat production threatens our planet’s health – it is the number one cause of global environmental damage, contributing to:

Global warming

Raising animals for food generates more CO2 and other greenhouse gas than all the cars and trucks on earth combined. Reducing demand for meat could rapidly lower atmospheric gases that are key contributors to global warming.

Pollution of rivers, streams, and oceans

Farmed animals produce about 130 times as much excrement as the entire human population of the US, yet CAFOs and factory farms do not use sewage treatment systems. Manure, antibiotics, growth hormones, fertilizers, pesticides, and other effluents pollute waterways and enter the human food chain.

Squandering of water

It takes 2,500 gallons to produce a pound of beef. In contrast, producing a pound of soy requires only 250 gallons of water, and a pound of wheat just 25 gallons.

Loss of wildlife habitat and biodiversity

Today, 30% of the earth’s entire land surface – 70% of all agricultural land – goes to supporting livestock. Clearing land to create pasture or grow animal feed results in deforestation, ecosystem destruction, and the incalculable loss of plant and animal species (and also releases vast CO2 stores).

Unsustainable resource use

Producing animal flesh requires up to three times as many resources as producing plant foods, and it leads to conflicts over water and land use. A vegetarian diet is our best step toward sustainable resource use.

What you can do:

Adopting a vegetarian diet not only helps avoid the basic sources of swine flu but also responds to serious global environmental challenges. Through a healthy, plant-based diet, you can help to protect public health, prevent the extreme suffering of animals, and care for the planet every time you eat.