A Public Health Ethics Case for Mitigating Zoonotic Disease Risk in Food Production


18 10 2021

In this article, Jan and Justin highlight the role of intensive animal agriculture in public health emergencies such as the COVID-19 pandemic. They then argue that if governments are permitted to infringe on liberty to promote public health in similar cases, then this permission extends to these food production practices. Governments are justified in restricting or even eliminating the intensive production of animals in order to mitigate the risk of future zoonotic pandemics and their associated harms and costs. While much of their argument focuses on the United States, one could apply they arguments to the context of other countries, including both countries in the Global North where intensive agriculture is the norm as well as those countries in the Global South where animal agriculture is fast becoming intensive and industrialized, including major animal source food (ASF) producers such as Brazil and China.

The article begins by identifying how intensive animal agriculture contributes to the outbreak (and risk of future outbreaks) of zoonotic diseases. Next, we explore three specific policy options: 1. Incentivizing plant-based and cell-based ASF alternatives through government subsidies; 2. Disincentivizing intensive ASF pro- duction through the adoption of a “zoonotic tax”; and 3. Eliminating intensive ASF production through a total ban. We argue that all three of these measures are permissible, although we remain agnostic as to whether these measures are obligatory. We argue for this conclusion on the grounds that each measure is justified by the same sorts of considerations that justify other widely accepted public health interventions, and each is compatible with a variety of theories of justice. We then address potential objections. Finally, we discuss how our novel argument relates to extant ethical arguments in favor or curtailing ASF production and consumption.