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Antarctic Alarm

News Icon 12/12/2023

King penguin backlit by setting sun
King penguin backlit by setting sun © Ian Parker Unsplash

By Anthony Field, Head of Compassion in World Farming UK

The potential for “one of the largest ecological disasters of modern times” should sound the alarm to factory farming’s true global impact – driving climate change and loss of nature.

The world has woken up to the climate emergency and the need to quickly reduce greenhouse gasses. The UN climate change conferences, otherwise known as Conference of the Parties, are the world’s response to that crisis. This year at COP28 the climate emissions from our food system was scrutinised – and rightly so. Globally the food system is responsible for nearly a third of greenhouse gas emissions.

Fears for penguin colonies

However, during the COP28 meeting a new story broke on the remotest continent on Earth, Antarctica. Reports of mass deaths of elephant seals and avian flu deaths at eight sites on Antarctic islands raises fears of what could happen to the tightly packed penguin colonies if it reaches the mainland. This is especially worrying as many Antarctic species are found nowhere else on Earth. If it does reach the penguin colonies and cause mass mortalities, a Guardian article on mass deaths of elephant seals quotes a pre-print research paper saying “it could signal one of the largest ecological disasters of modern times”.

The article highlights that wild birds are carrying the highly pathogenic bird flu to new Antarctic sites. It doesn’t mention the role of densely populated poultry factory farms where the virus can propagate. In 2023 the Scientific Task Force on Avian Influenza and Wild Birds restated that this virus originated in the poultry sector, not in wild birds.

Major farm reforms urgently needed

Tens of thousands of chickens housed in a single barn provide an ideal breeding ground for viruses and also bacteria to spread and evolve. It’s no wonder that around 70% of our precious antibiotic treatments are used in farmed animals. Much of this is mass use on factory farms where routine antibiotics in feed or water are employed to promote growth and to compensate for the crowded, disease-inducing conditions. This misuse is contributing to antibiotic resistance in humans.

The current strains of avian flu can be caught by humans following close contact with infected birds. We should be glad that they don’t spread easily to, or between, humans. However, there’s a significant risk that new pandemic strains of bird flu may emerge.  This year Compassion in World Farming highlighted the urgent need for reforms to tackle this crisis.

With the threat to the Earth’s remotest continent and the death of millions of wild animals from avian flu it is time we bring an end to the age of factory farms, for the health of the planet and ourselves.


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