No one can predict when or where the next global public health crisis will arise. But a Humane Society International white paper concludes that farming animals on a large scale poses a serious risk.

The novel coronavirus is believed to have originated in a wildlife market in Wuhan, China, from frightened, stressed animals confined to bare cages in crowded, unsanitary conditions—ideal conditions for the creation of a new, deadly disease. After the outbreak, our researchers began to examine other human-animal interactions that could spark another viral pandemic. The intensive farming of animals emerged as a clear front-runner.

A factory farm offers viruses the perfect setting to turn deadly. Like wildlife markets, intensive confinement systems crowd large numbers of animals into small spaces, creating a much greater risk of amplifying disease. In industrial chicken and pig production facilities, for example, animals are raised by the tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands. They share dim, indoor enclosures where the air is dusty and ammonia-laden from animal waste. Breeding pigs in the pork industry are confined in gestation crates that are so narrow, they cannot even turn around. Egg laying hens are packed in cages so small they cannot stretch their wings. In an infected production site, a virus can replicate and mutate and become a deadly pathogen.

This is both a serious animal welfare crisis and a global health crisis, and not really a new one: factory farms likely played a key role in the pandemic outbreak of swine flu in 2009, which killed more than 150,000 people during the first year it circulated, and bird flu or avian influenza remains an ominous threat.

Read: The connection between animal agriculture, viral zoonoses, and global pandemics

Our researchers identified five risk areas associated with such intensive practices. These include the expansion of animal agriculture into the natural habitat of wild animals, the extraordinary size of factory farms and their concentration in limited geographic areas, the intercontinental trade in live animals, and live animal markets and fairs, where multiple animal species are put in direct contact with the public.

We need to reform practices in global animal agriculture urgently in order to avoid the risk of another pandemic. Today, we are making an urgent plea to governments and corporations across the globe to implement the following policy recommendations without delay:

  • Reduce our global reliance on animal-based protein.
  • Reduce the number of animals raised for human food, thereby reducing the number of animals both within farms and geographically.
  • Phase out of the use of cages and crates used to overcrowd animals in intensive systems.
  • Phase out the long-distance transport of live animals.
  • Enact policies to protect natural ecosystems from agricultural expansion and other sources of degradation and fragmentation.
  • Ban the sale of poultry at all live bird markets and restrict live animal exhibitions.
  • Enact public policies favoring the production of plant-based options in place of expanding animal agriculture.

No one wants to contemplate another pandemic while we are still in the middle of this one. But it is only by learning what went wrong this time that we can avoid another outbreak in the future. Nations throughout the world are beginning to address other risky forms of animal use that have been implicated in disease spread, like fur farms and wildlife markets. Big Ag too has come under the spotlight during this pandemic, with slaughterhouses responsible for spreading the coronavirus to thousands of workers globally. But the world needs to do much more to address the terrible, cruel and dangerous practices in large-scale animal agriculture that could lead to the next public health disaster. More than 80 billion animals around the world are slaughtered each year for food, and animal agriculture continues to expand and grow. With it grows the risk of a future pandemic outbreak.

This simply cannot continue. More than one million people have now died of the coronavirus. If we want to make our world safer and avoid another pandemic outbreak, we need to take a hard look at the conspicuous risks that the large-scale farming of animals poses to human health, as well as the terrible animal welfare nightmare it creates.