| Chickens | MR Online “The most profound alteration of the animal-human relationship in 10,000 years”

Capitalism’s new age of plagues. Part 5: The pandemic machines

Originally published: Climate & Capitalism on May 15, 2024 (more by Climate & Capitalism)  |

Part 5 of a multi-part article on the causes and implications of global capitalism’s descent into an era when infectious diseases are ever more common. My views are subject to continuing debate and testing in practice. I look forward to your comments, criticisms, and corrections.

[Part 1] [Part 2] [Part 3] [Part 4] [Part 5]

The global food system is a slow-moving disaster, but it is not broken. It is working precisely as a capitalist food system is supposed to work: it expands constantly, concentrating wealth in a few, powerful monopolies, while transferring all the social and environmental costs onto society.

—Eric Holt-Giménez1

In March, Cal-Maine Foods, the largest U.S. egg producer, reported that chickens in one of its Texas egg factories had contracted Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza Type A–better known as Bird Flu. To stop the disease from spreading, the corporation slaughtered 1.6 million birds. This was just the latest mass cull in the current Bird Flu epidemic–over 100 million farmed birds and countless wild ones across the U.S. and Canada have died since the beginning of 2022.2

Across the U.S., Cal-Maine operates 42 “production facilities” in which 44 million hens lay over 13 billion eggs a year. In 2023 it had gross profits of $1.2 billion on $3.1 billion in sales.3 In that context, the loss of 1.6 million birds in Texas is a minor inconvenience–especially since the U.S. government (responding to agribusiness lobbying) pays for birds slaughtered in Bird Flu outbreaks. Millions of dead chickens are a cost of doing business, and not a major one, at that.

Influenza viruses have been carried by waterfowl for centuries without making the birds ill, but when a variant dubbed H5N1 jumped to farmed ducks in southern China in 1996, it rapidly evolved into a form that is both highly infectious and deadly for poultry. That version subsequently jumped back to wild birds, and has continued to mutate while spreading worldwide. The disease primarily affects poultry, but between 2003 and 2019, 861 human cases were reported in 17 countries, and 455 of the patients died.4

An influenza variant that first appeared in pigs in the United States and Mexico in 2009 went on to infect millions of people worldwide, killing between 150,000 and 575,000 people.

Since the late 1990s, a new and highly pathogenic variant of H5N1 has become the principal cause of Avian Influenza in Europe, Africa, Asia, and North America, responsible for millions of poultry deaths. In April 2024, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported that for the first time it had infected dairy cattle. On May 8, the CDC reported that 36 dairy herds in 9 states were affected by H5N1, but that is certainly an underestimate, since many operators are refusing to test cattle or report infections.

A dairy worker in Texas is the first-known example of mammal-to-human H5N1 transmission, but again, other cases may not have been reported, particularly since the human symptoms of this flu are mild and short-lived. The risk to human health is currently said to be low, but as epidemiologist Michael Mina points out,

unchecked transmission among cattle means the virus is increasingly bumping up against humans. Every human exposure, in turn, provides an opportunity for new mutations that could enable human-to-human transmission… Though the risk of an H5N1 pandemic may currently be low, the consequences of inaction could be catastrophic.5

Flu Factories

Until the third quarter of the 20th Century, a Bird Flu virus that jumped to a domestic chicken or pig would have quickly hit a dead end. Almost all chickens were raised on family farms in flocks of a few dozen birds: 400 was a very large flock. Pigs were kept in much smaller numbers. So even if the virus was highly contagious, it would soon run out of new hosts to infect..

That changed with what has been called “the most profound alteration of the animal-human relationship in 10,000 years”6— the rapid expansion of Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs), more accurately called factory farms.

Today a handful of giant corporations control production of broilers (chickens raised for meat) and layers (chickens kept for eggs). A typical facility has hundreds of thousands of birds crammed into windowless buildings with little room to move. By the end of the 20th century, the poultry industry in North America was completely transformed, and its methods were widely copied, particularly in southeast Asia and China.

Hog-farming was transformed even more rapidly, beginning in the 1990s.

In 1992 less than a third of U.S. hogs were raised on farms with more than two thousand animals, but by 2004 four out of five hogs came from one of these giant operations, and by 2007, 95 percent were. An analysis by Food & Water Watch found that between 1997 and 2007, 4,600 hogs were added to a factory farm every single day, increasing the total to more than 62 million.7

Worldwide, three-quarters of all cows, chickens, pigs, and sheep are kept in confined industrial facilities. In the United States, the factory farmed proportion is much higher, including over 99% of chickens and 98%% of pigs.

The birds and animals in these industrial systems have been bred to grow rapidly, producing consistent amounts of meat or eggs while consuming a minimum of feed. Through profit-focused breeding programs, commercial poultry has lost more than half of the generic diversity of their wild ancestors.8 Factory farms are populated by genetically-identical animals that respond similarly to new infections–a virus that makes one animal ill can do the same to the others without further mutations. If one chicken in a mega-barn contracts avian flu, most of the rest will die in a few days.

If you wanted to build a pandemic-creation machine, you could scarcely improve on the factory farm system. As Rob Wallace writes.

Our world is encircled by cities of millions of monoculture pig and poultry pressed alongside each other, an ecology nigh perfect for the evolution of multiple virulent strains of influenza.9

However unintended, the entirety of the production line is organized around practices that accelerate the evolution of pathogen virulence and subsequent transmission. Growing genetic monocultures–food animals and plants with nearly identical genomes–removes immune firebreaks that in more diverse populations slow down transmission. Pathogens now can just quickly evolve around the commonplace host immune genotypes. Meanwhile, crowded conditions depress immune response. Larger farm animal population sizes and densities of factory farms facilitate greater transmission and recurrent infection. High throughput, a part of any industrial production, provides a continually renewed supply of susceptibles at barn, farm, and regional levels, removing the cap on the evolution of pathogen deadliness. Housing a lot of animals together rewards those strains that can burn through them best. Decreasing the age of slaughter–to six weeks in chickens–is likely to select for pathogens able to survive more robust immune systems.10

Similarly, a multi-disciplinary task force sponsored by the non-profit Council for Agricultural Science and Technology concluded:

A major impact of modern intensive production systems is that they allow the rapid selection and amplification of pathogens that arise from a virulent ancestor (frequently by subtle mutation), thus there is increasing risk for disease entrance and/or dissemination… Stated simply, because of the Livestock Revolution, global risks of disease are increasing.11

The accelerating emergence of zoonotic diseases is inextricably connected to the industrialization of poultry, pigs and cattle, which itself is inextricably bound up with capital’s drive to expand, no matter what damage it does. Annual profits of $4.9 billion (Cargill), $4.4 billion (JBS Foods), and $4.1 billion (Tyson Foods),12 are only possible because they offload the costs of pandemics and pollution onto society at large. So long as factory farms generate such returns, agribusiness will continue to treat epidemic disease as an acceptable cost of doing business.

Agribusiness, as Rob Wallace puts it, is in a strategic alliance with influenza. Big Food is at war with public health, and public health is losing.13

 [To be continued]


  1. Eric Holt-Giménez, Can We Feed the World without Destroying It?, Global Futures (Cambridge, UK ; Medford, MA: Polity Press, 2018), 86.
  2. Andrew Jacobs, “A Cruel Way to Control Bird Flu? Poultry Giants Cull and Cash In.,” The New York Times, April 2, 2024, sec. Science.
  3. Cal-Maine Foods, “3Q 2024 Investor Presentation.”
  4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Highlights in the History of Avian Influenza (Bird Flu),” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, July 8, 2022.
  5. Michael Mina and Janika Schmitt, “How to Stop Bird Flu From Becoming the Next Pandemic,” TIME, May 9, 2024.
  6. Michael Greger, Bird Flu: A Virus of Our Own Hatching (New York: Lantern Books, 2006), 109—10.
  7. Wenonah Hauter, Foodopoly: The Battle over the Future of Food and Farming in America (New York: New Press, 2012), 171.
  8. William M. Muir et al., “Genome-Wide Assessment of Worldwide Chicken SNP Genetic Diversity Indicates Significant Absence of Rare Alleles in Commercial Breeds,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 105, no. 45 (November 11, 2008): 17312—17.
  9. Rob Wallace, Big Farms Make Big Flu: Dispatches on Infectious Disease, Agribusiness, and the Nature of Science (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2016), 38.
  10. Rob Wallace et al., “COVID-19 and Circuits of Capital,” Monthly Review 72, no. 1 (May 1, 2020): 1—15.
  11. Council for Agricultural Science and Technology, “Global Risks of Infectious Animal Diseases,” Issue Paper, February 2005, 6.
  12. Warren Fiske, “‘Big Four’ Meat Packers Are Seeing Record Profits,” Politifact, June 30, 2022.
  13. Wallace, Big Farms Make Big Flu, 11; “COVID-19 and Circuits of Capital,” 12.
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