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Animal ag speaks out on COVID-19 blame game

Letter from 65-plus organizations details importance of animal agriculture in current COVID-19 pandemic.

The precise origin of COVID-19 remains under investigation, but ongoing research continues to confirm that domestic livestock production is safe and has not played a role in the spread of COVID-19. However, some are making unfounded claims that livestock and modern agriculture were somehow the source of this coronavirus pandemic. 

“This threatens to distract the global public health response at a time when animal agriculture can offer lessons for wildlife zoonosis management as part of the long-term pandemic preparedness,” according to an open letter signed by leading academics across four continents and joined by U.S., Canadian and international organizations representing millions of farmers, producers and veterinarians.

Signatories -- including the Animal Agriculture Alliance, World Veterinary Assn. and International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) -- clarified that domestic livestock production is safe and has not played a role in the spread of COVID-19, despite recent unfounded claims. The letter calls for governments and authorities to reassure consumers about the safety of meat, milk, eggs and fish while also working with farmers and veterinarians to share lessons and expertise around animal health.

Dr. Dan U. Thomson, professor and chair of the department of animal science at Iowa State University, noted that the animal agriculture industry deals with biosecurity and disease controls every day.

“We work with population medicine, quarantine of animals and much more to keep our animals healthy,” Thomson said. “It is so ironic to hear people talk about herd immunity, overwhelming the health care system and much more.”

Livestock diseases are monitored globally to help prevent them from spreading across borders the way that COVID-19 has done, and advances in farm and facility practices, animal nutrition, veterinary diagnostics and medicine mean that many zoonotic diseases, such as those from salmonella, are well managed in most economies. Using these learnings to develop more robust early-warning systems for wildlife could enhance the ability to detect emerging diseases.

The letter noted that 1.3 billion people globally depend on livestock for their employment, while billions more rely on livestock to provide food for their families. Animal agriculture provides milk, meat, fish and eggs at a time when access to safe, nutritious and affordable food is necessary to fend off a potential global hunger crisis and offers invaluable support for farmers facing severe, often existential, economic hardships.

Thomson said he believes people feel compelled to use a crisis to get their message out, and this is playing out by animal activists during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The pandemic offers us an opportunity to move forward in a better, more humane way by reducing our consumption of animal products and embracing plant-based foods,” Kitty Block, president and chief executive officer of The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), said in a blog May 26 posting.

In a plan released on May 14, HSUS detailed an 11-point policy plan to “reduce animal suffering and help prevent future national and global pandemics,” including a call for the global food industry to shift its focus to plant-based proteins and also a call for an end to “intensive confinement of farm animals” because it is a “harbor for pathogens.”

Thomson stated, “When meat was flying off the grocery store counters, it was obvious that people wanted meat, milk and eggs to stay healthy and strong. It probably shocked others to see that natural and organic and alternative protein sources stayed on the shelf.”

Animal rights groups want to change policies on how animals are raised to increase the price of animal protein. “If we increase the cost of production, we increase the cost at the meat counter, which then reduces the ability of people to purchase these products,” he said.

Thomson explained that modern livestock production has evolved to improve animal health and well-being, improve the use of natural resources and improve food safety and security. 

“If we make changes without evidence-based decision tools, we will increase the cost of food while decreasing animal health, environmental stewardship and more,” he said. “It is hard for me to explain to a single mom with two children working two jobs to stay out of poverty that we are making these changes that will increase the price of food without showing exactly how we are making it safer or improving the health of the animals.”

Thomson stated, “We have to lead the discussion of being here to serve our neighbors through the production of food. We do it in a manner that is good for all involved, including the animals in our care.”

He said animal right activists are driving a vegan agenda, and they have their moral beliefs. “I respect all and listen to their sides. My rub is when I am told that my moral compass is wrong because it doesn’t match the intolerant minority. We can coexist, and we can all get better.”

The letter co-signers urged authorities, intergovernmental groups and non-government organizations to reaffirm the safety of livestock production and remind consumers of the robust food safety system, including the important role of veterinarians and animal nutrition. Thomson said this is seen every day when looking at the meat counters, explaining, “We don’t have outbreaks of foodborne pathogens. Our food system is outstanding, and our food is safe and plentiful.”

The letter also asks support for consulting with livestock experts, including farmers and other stakeholders in the feed and food chain, to understand how to aid their efforts to feed communities.

Thomson said it is important for those who produce and supply food to communicate and engage with people.

“When we don’t communicate, our imaginations run wild,” Thomson said. “We have to trust each other and be able to sort political activism from reality.”

Poverty is based on the price of food, he added. Restaurants don’t take food stamps, so they serve people who can afford to have someone plan the meal, cook the meal and do the dishes. They will make changes to support their clientele. The grocery stores and food pantries feed the masses.

“When we make changes that increase the price of food but don’t increase in people’s income, we will increase poverty,” Thomson said. “I didn’t sign up to just feed the rich and famous when I decided to dedicate my life to animal agriculture. I love people, and I love animals.”

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