When you think of the pharmaceutical industry, animal agriculture is likely not the first thing that comes to mind. But, in a telling reminder of how intricate the web of agribusiness can be, a recent report claims that the global animal health market is a multi billion dollar industry. With China on the verge of sending rates of meat consumption through the roof, it's also one that has every intention of rapidly expanding in the near future. The reason for the industry's existence, in short, is animal agriculture (with a boost coming from companion animals).
Critical to the industry's success are vaccines, medicated feed, and a variety of reproductive and respiratory drugs. Critics of industrial agriculture are correct to lament the connection between drugs and CAFOs. But it's also important to remember that animals raised in smaller settings also require frequent medication for basic ailments. In my forthcoming book, The Modern Savage (which you can pre-order), I detail the extent to which small farmers rely on the animal health industry to medicate their livestock. As long as we eat animals raised for food, and as long as animals get colds and ticks and fleas, we'll have a sector of the pharmaceutical industry that thrives on that appetite.
The world's top animal health firms are: Zoetis (formerly Pfizer), Merck, Merial, Eli Lilly, Bayer, Boehringer, and Novartis. They are enjoying a growth rate of about five percent a year. One common corporate strategy is to leverage human drugs for the animal market. And, from a corporate perspective, why not? There are only seven billion humans, but 100 billion or so farm animals. That's a lot more flesh and bones to keep medicated. Concerned consumers have many reasons for not wanting to support this industry. Not only are millions of animals subjected to brutal tests in order to create these drugs, but the impact of these drugs on global ecosystems is substantial. These drugs enter the environment through excrement, urine, and direct disposal. The State of Washington notes how it can all come back to us: "Landfill leachate can contain trace amounts of pharmaceuticals as well. Often this leachate is sent to the same wastewater treatment systems that receive residential wastewater."
The takeaway here is this: Our choice to raise billions of animals for food requires more than land, air, and water–all of which is bad enough. So much more is hidden from us. When we eat animals we often fail to understand the how broadly the ripple effects extend. Growing plants is hardly a chemically harmless endeavor, but it's nothing like animal ag, where every hour is pharmaceutical cocktail hour.