Intensive farming could actually reduce pandemic risk, experts say

In the wake of COVID-19, many have pointed to modern industrial farms with densely packed livestock as potential hotbeds for further pandemics caused by ‘zoonotic’ diseases: diseases that are transmitted from animals to humans.

However, researchers now argue that the free-range alternative, which requires much more land, would increase the degradation of natural habitats and create increasing opportunities for wildlife-borne diseases to interact with humans and break the species barrier. exceed.

In a paper in Royal Society Open Science, a team of scientists led by the University of Cambridge found a lack of sufficient evidence to conclude which way of farming is the least risky, saying there is some evidence that shedding intensive farming could actually increase the risk of pandemics. . They argue for more research before changing policies or promoting a particular type of agriculture.

“High yielding or ‘intensive’ livestock farming is blamed for pandemics, but those calling for a move away from intensive livestock farming often fail to consider the counterfactual: the pandemic risk of less intensive farming and in particular the impact on land use,” said the leader. author Harriet Bartlett, a PhD student in Cambridge’s Department of Zoology.

“Low-yielding farms need much more land to produce the same amount of food compared to high-yielding farms. A widespread conversion to low-yield farming would result in the destruction and disruption of vast natural habitats. This increases the risk of viral spillover by disrupting wildlife that could harbor the next pandemic virus and increasing contact between wildlife, humans and livestock,” Bartlett said.

The researchers point out that we now produce four times more meat worldwide than in the 1960s. Most of our meat, eggs and dairy now comes from intensive farms, but such farms are considered risky because of the crowded conditions that increase the chances of diseases ‘flashing up’ and spreading quickly.

However, intensive farms require less land than extensive or ‘free range’ farms to produce the same amount of food – both to grow their feed and to keep their animals.

Growing demand for animal products has led to dramatic habitat loss, the researchers say, meaning we now farm in places where livestock and humans come into regular contact with wildlife. They say this contact with increasingly disturbed, stressed and infected wildlife makes the spread of zoonotic viruses to humans or livestock more likely.

“If we were to switch from the current system to one based on extensive farming, we would need significantly more land to meet demand – resulting in the conversion of habitats roughly the size of Brazil and India. between 2009 and 2050,” said paper co-author Prof. Andrew Balmford. “This could increase contact between people, livestock and stressed wildlife — including wildlife that may be harboring the next pandemic virus.”

“Intensive farms may have a greater risk of takeoff, but extensive farms may have a greater risk of overflow,” he said.

Disturbingly, the researchers say, we simply don’t know which risk is more important to prevent future pandemics, and so it’s currently impossible to determine which types of businesses, in total, carry the least risk.

Bartlett added: “COVID-19 has demonstrated the enormous potential impact of zoonotic diseases, and this study highlights that more research is urgently needed to determine how we can minimize the risk of another pandemic.”


Bartlett H, Holmes MA, Petrovan SO, Williams DR, Wood JLN, Balmford A. 2022 Understanding the relative risks of onset of zoonosis under different approaches to meet the demand for animal products. R. Soc. Open science. 9:211573.

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