London-based FAIRR says factory farms might spread or start the next pandemic, an idea the meat industry rejects.
  • Factory farms are both vulnerable to starting and spreading pandemics, an investor group study says.
  • Plant-based meat alternatives all well placed to benefit from any switch away from industrial beef, pork and poultry production.
  • More than 70% of animal agriculture companies are at “high risk” of causing pandemics in the future, according to the FAIRR report.

Nutritionists have long debated the physical health benefits of reducing meat consumption. One advocacy group sees financial benefits for investors reducing the amount of meat in their portfolios.

More than 70% of animal agriculture firms are at “high risk” of creating future pandemics, according to London-based FAIRR, which seeks to raise awareness of risks to investing in the livestock industry. The meat industry has been among those hardest hit by COVID-19 pandemic, with thousands of sick workers, shut slaughterhouses, a backlog of animals and meat shortages. 

“Animal farms are designed optimized for efficiency,” Maria Lettini, the executive director of FAIRR, whose name stands for Farm Animal Investment Risk & Return, told Karma. “Efficiency doesn’t equal resiliency. These farms have become the sources of disease and reservoirs of dangerous bacteria and viruses.”

Since being first detected in Wuhan, China, late last year, COVID-19 has infected more than 7 million people worldwide and led to the death of 403,000. The coronavirus originally came from an animal source. 

The growth of industrial animal farming over the last 70 years has coincided with a surge of zoonotic disease — those passable from animals to humans — according to FAIRR, which claims the support of investors overseeing $20 trillion in assets. About three out of four of emerging diseases are zoonotic and animal agriculture provides a pathway for them to move between species. 

Common spillover routes include inadequate worker protection, manure, wastewater, and live-animal transport. Foot-and-Mouth and “mad-cow” diseases came from farmers using animal products in feed. Meat producers, disputing FAIRR’s findings, say that additional factors are behind the spread of diseases.

“It’s important first to understand that no single factor can be blamed for disease emergence, and no one action by humans is going to cause a disease to become zoonotic,” Dr. Brett Kaysen, the National Pork Board’s vice president of sustainability, told Karma. “When we think about global spread of disease — what turns a disease into a global pandemic — it’s not agriculture. It’s the rate and relative ease of human global travel.”

The FAIRR Pandemic Ranking aims to show how companies, and the sector as a whole, behave with respect to pandemics, assessing performance in areas such as pollution and animal welfare. Forty-four out of the 60 companies analyzed, with a value of $224 billion, were rated “high risk” by the Pandemic Ranking. While 16 companies are in the “medium risk” category, there were none in the “low risk” and “best practices” categories. 

Big differences exist between animal agriculture sectors and regions. Aquaculture was by far the highest-rated sector, while poultry and pork were tied for the lowest rating. Companies based in Europe had the highest rating, while those in Asia had the lowest.

“The report correctly points out ‘A monumental and coordinated shift in biosecurity training, safety and surveillance is needed, especially in emerging markets,’” Kaysen said. “The key there is that last clause — in emerging markets. The U.S. pork industry, a well-established market, has one of the strongest commitments to animal and public health in the world.”

FAIRR said that COVID-19 should lead to changes to both regulations and consumer behavior.  Regulators in Europe and the U.S. are considering how best to prevent and/or mitigate the next pandemic. They are looking at a number of areas — including industry consolidation, moratoriums on factory farms, ending live export, curbing antibiotic use, and overhauling biosecurity practices. Consumers are increasingly open to meat substitutes, something that may accelerate because of the disruptions to the industry, according to Lettini.

“What a tremendous opportunity for plant-based substitutes,” Lettini said. “They don’t suffer from the diseases or supply-chain disruptions that occur in the meat industry.”

Values of plant-based protein companies have soared in recent months as consumer demand gains. Shares of Beyond Meat, for example, have more than doubled over the past six months to $162.46, including a more than 20% jump Monday, June 8.

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