November 18, 2020 - 7:00am

Where will the next pandemic come from? A good bet is somewhere among the world’s factory farms. In a powerful piece for UnHerd this week, John Lewis-Stempel describes the terrifying disease risks we create when we cram animals together in conditions where pathogens can mutate, proliferate and spread into the human population.

We need to defuse the ticking time bomb before it’s too late, but how?

Highlighting the sheer scale of production — “one billion pigs, three billion ducks and 69 billion chickens are slaughtered annually to meet the demand for meat” — John doubts the world is about to go vegan. I’m sure he’s right about that, but is there any more chance that we might “de-intensify and deindustrialise the livestock industry”, as he advocates?

This would entail a fundamental change of direction in a foundational sector of the economy. Right now all the momentum — the investment, the expertise, the supply chains and most of the consumer demand — is behind intensification.

So what could possibly turn that around? Technology, perhaps. Cultured meat, if convincing enough, could beat the factory farmers at the their own game — leaving real meat as a premium, free-range product.

But if tech doesn’t come to the rescue, then a long, hard, political battle lies ahead. It wouldn’t be the first time that a global industry has been brought down by moral arguments. At one point, the transatlantic slave trade was as powerful as it was evil — and yet it was eventually abolished. Mind you, that did take decades of advocacy, a revolution in Haiti, a civil war in America and the intervention of the Royal Navy.

A more recent example is the fight against climate change. Though a long way from being won, we have seen previously unthinkable progress over the last decade, for instance the near elimination of coal from the British energy sector. Furthermore, nation after nation is committing itself to achieving net zero emissions by 2050. Therefore, long-term concerns for the common good can overcome the profit motive.

Let’s hope that a parallel process might commit the world to the end of intensive meat production. Perhaps our descendants will look back and ask how such an inhumane and dangerous practice was ever allowed. However, they might also honour those nations and leaders who first took a stand against it — and warned other nations of the consequences of inaction.

In 1989, Margaret Thatcher’s speech to the United Nations General Assembly played a vital role in catalysing the international effort on climate change. Today, there’s an opportunity for another bold leader — perhaps another British Conservative Prime Minister — to speak up against the cruelty and existential risks of factory farming.

Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.