Calling “antibiotic-resistant microbes, climate change and chronic diseases ‘three slow-motion disasters’ shaping the global health landscape,” writers Scott Weathers, Sophie Hermanns, and Mark Bittman take on a major threat to public health and the environment: factory farms. They begin their argument from an historical perspective:

Starting just after World War II, animal production in the United States became increasingly industrialized. Factory-like farms radically increased the number of cows, chickens and pigs they could raise and slaughter with economic efficiency. This is one reason meat consumption rose sharply in the United States after the war. So, too, worldwide, meat production has tripled over the last four decades and increased 20 percent in just the last 10 years, according to research by the Worldwatch Institute, an environmental research group.

This sweeping change in meat production and consumption has had grave consequences for our health and environment, and these problems will grow only worse if current trends continue.

There is increasing evidence that consumption of some meat and dairy products lead to chronic diseases. The World Health Organization classifies processed meats as carcinogenic and red meat as “probably carcinogenic.”

Antibiotic-resistant bacteria — a growing and frightening human health problem — proliferate to a great extent because of the ubiquitous use of antibiotics by factory farms. While the medical establishment is quite aware of the urgency in stopping the spread of superbugs by patrolling the overuse of antibiotics by physicians, the fact is that about three-quarters of the antibiotics used in the U.S. and Europe are used in agriculture, not the medical sector.

While fossil fuel extraction, production, and utilization for power generation and transportation are responsible for the majority of greenhouse gas emissions, agriculture is also a huge contributor to global warming. In order to keep the mean global temperature increase below the 2 degree Celsius mark agreed upon in the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, profound changes in the way we grow food and livestock will need to occur:

Another 2014 study in Britain found that meat eaters were responsible for twice the greenhouse gas emissions of people on plant-based diets. And recent studies calculated that if health guidelines on meat consumption were followed worldwide, food-related greenhouse gas emissions could be reduced by 29 percent to 45 percent. Of course, this would require major changes in food systems.

But what needs to happen first is that consumers need to consciously decide to eat less meat, especially beef and processed foods. Only then will factory farms and food systems respond. The authors make four recommendations to international policymakers:

Ban the use of growth-promoting antibiotics in animal farming and provide incentives to meat producers to dispose of antibiotics and animal waste in ways that prevent environmental contamination.

Stop subsidizing factory farming.

Adopt nutrition standards and implement education campaigns that warn of the health risks of meat consumption.

Finance research into plant-based alternatives to meat.

This fire’s getting hot:

The harms factory farming causes are global in nature: Bacteria resistant to antibiotics do not recognize borders, nor does climate change, and health care systems everywhere will struggle to meet the challenges of rising chronic diseases.

Eating animals may have been crucial to our survival in the past. But now, it’s killing us.

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