Many may recall the acclaimed 2005 French documentary, “The March of the Penguins.” The filmed captivated audiences (including me) with its heart-warming tale of emperor penguins’ annual migration to their breeding grounds in Antarctica where they face incredible challenges in sustaining themselves and their newborn chicks. Sadly, emperor penguins and all animals in Antarctica are now facing even greater threats.

On February 27, 2024, I was struck by the latest reports revealing a concerning development: despite human intervention and significant geographical barriers separating it from the rest of the world, avian flu had managed to infiltrate Antarctica via seabirds known as skuas.

This event, while perhaps inevitable, marked another troubling phase in the virus’ global evolution and spread, with its presence now extending across every continent except Australia. This news was a sobering and stark reminder to me of the far-reaching and unintended consequences of animal agriculture. I began to worry about emperor penguins and other wildlife in Antarctica.1

The Origins of Avian Flu

Reading about this milestone made me curious to learn more about the history of avian flu, where it started, its progression, and attempts at mitigating it’s spread. On my journey down this rather demoralizing rabbit hole, I discovered that the first documented cases of H5N1 avian flu date back to 1996-97 and emerged from China’s Guangdong Province. That area sounded very familiar to me. I did a quick search of “Guangdong” in my book, Escape the Meatrix, and recalled why. Guangdong was also ground zero for the first pandemic of the twenty-first century: the 2002 SARS CoV outbreak. Yikes!

Both cases, the avian flu and subsequent SARS CoV outbreak, highlight the interconnectedness of zoonotic diseases, originating not only from domestic but also from wildlife sources. For avian flu, scientists traced the origin of this deadly virus to domestic waterfowl, specifically ducks bred for consumption or ornamental purposes. This is problematic because interaction with both wild and domestic animals frequently drives the spread of novel viruses, underscoring the urgent need for comprehensive measures to address the root causes of disease transmission.

“I think we’re going to see some haunting images… And it’s the last thing that Antarctic wildlife needs right now, when it’s trying to adapt to this changing climate.”

Emily Grilly, WWF-Australia’s Antarctic conservation manager

Initial efforts to stop the virus from spreading from farm birds to wild ones showed promise. However, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2005 wild birds helped the virus spread to Africa, the Middle East, and Europe. This led to new strains, like H5N6 and H5N8, emerging between 2014 and 2016 due to gene swapping between wild and farm birds.

Then in late 2021, the virus was detected in wild bird populations in Canada and the United States, indicating a concerning shift in its transmission dynamics.

Bidenomics, Supply Chain Issues, Price Gouging?

Do you remember eggflation—the unusually high prices of eggs (and turkey) that occurred in 2022? Some wanted to blame Bidenomics, supply chain issues, or price gouging by retailers, but the real culprit was avian flu. You see, according to Amy Hagerman, associate professor of Agricultural Economics at Oklahoma State University and former employee of the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, avian flu tends to dissipate during summer months due to increased sunlight and higher temperatures, but this pattern shifted in 2022. The virus persisted throughout the summer and resurged with cooler temperatures, prompting U.S. poultry farmers to cull their flocks to mitigate transmission, resulting in elevated prices for both eggs and turkey. Prices for chicken meat held steady, because for some unknown reason broiler chickens (the unfortunate industry moniker of poultry raised for meat, not eggs) weren’t as impacted by this virus.2

Mammal-to-Mammal Transmission

Eggflation was followed by another alarming development. In October 2022 scientists identified the first cases of mammal-to-mammal transmission on a mink farm in Spain. The mutation allowing for this transmission marked a new chapter in the history of the avian flu, with over 50,000 mink culled to contain the outbreak.3

Experts such as Dr. Isaac Bogoch, a Toronto-based infectious disease specialist, have raised the alarm stating, “This is an infection that has epidemic and pandemic potential … I don’t know if people recognize how big a deal this is.” Dr. Thijs Kuiken, a veterinary pathologist at Erasmus University Medical Center in the Netherlands, underscores the importance of proactive measures to prevent future outbreaks, stating, “You have to also think in the first place whether you want to have mink farms. We need to be thinking much more about our human activities in a way that we try to prevent the problems that we’re seeing, for example, with the emergence of infectious diseases, rather than trying to mitigate them or solve them after they’ve appeared.” I agree, the adage “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” comes to mind.

Sadly, the spread of disease didn’t end there nor was it limited to poultry, wild birds, and mink. On February 2, 2023, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation reported the World Health Organization’s documentation of 240 human cases of H5N1 avian influenza in four Western Pacific countries over two decades, with a mortality rate exceeding 50% among infected individuals. Globally, WHO data indicated over 870 human cases reported between 2003 and 2022, resulting in at least 450 deaths. These extremely high mortality rates underscore the severity of the threat posed by avian flu to human health.

As sad as learning about the virus’s arrival in Antarctica made me, the implications of it doing so remain uncertain. Understandably after billions of birds, thousands of mink, and hundreds of human fatalities, scientists are apprehensive about what impact the avian virus will have on local wildlife, particularly seals and penguins. In response to the arrival of the virus in Antarctica, Emily Grilly, WWF-Australia’s Antarctic conservation manager, offered this somber prediction, “I think we’re going to see some haunting images… And it’s the last thing that Antarctic wildlife needs right now, when it’s trying to adapt to this changing climate.”4

Zoonotic Disease

While the avian flu virus’ arrival in one of the most remote places on our planet may have gone unnoticed by many, it serves as a stark reminder of the interconnectedness of animal agriculture, wildlife and human health. The emergence of avian flu, along with other zoonotic diseases like the 2002 SARS CoV and COVID-19 outbreaks, underscores the importance of preserving natural habitats and implementing proactive measures to prevent future outbreaks. Intensive animal agriculture offers many pathways for previously unknown pathogens to mutate and leap from non-human to human animals. It’s imperative that we heed this warning and take decisive action to safeguard both wildlife and human lives. Our future depends on it.

What action can we take? Voting with our dollars is one of the most impactful ways we, as individuals can create change. I encourage everyone to divest themselves and their dollars as much as possible from animal agriculture by adopting a plant-forward or plant-based lifestyle.

We can also write to our elected officials and let them know we want guardrails placed on big agriculture, especially concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) where high density/low-diversity environments allow pathogens to not only gain a foothold but to thrive. Demand more funding for enhanced biosecurity measures aimed at preventing spillover into wild populations. Finally, shifting subsidies away from large-scale animal agriculture and investing in a sustainable plant-based food economy will be paramount for not only reducing the risk of future pandemics, but also the health of our planet as well as human and non-human animals.