How automation in animal agriculture will help protect human health


Many industries are becoming increasingly automated. With driverless cars touted as being safer than cars which require a person behind the wheel, it seems likely that driverless cars will be the norm in the future. Of course, this threatens millions of jobs worldwide – with mass unemployment being a general problem associated with the rise of automation.

However, while efficient robot workers make many human workers obsolete, there are definite benefits to letting machines do our work for us. For example, AI systems carrying out medical diagnoses could save lives, since they would be able to do so more cheaply, accurately and efficiently than doctors today.

Another industry that is set to become highly automated is the farming industry. And here too, automation could help to protect human health, and save many lives.


The problem of zoonotic diseases

Jonathan Safran Foer, the author of Eating Animals, has pointed out that eating animals is making us sick. As the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates, there are 76 million food-borne illnesses every year in the US, which Foer says is likely due to factory farming. With so many animals living cramped together, in filthy conditions and without the health of each individual animal being monitored, pathogens can spread very quickly.

Then there are zoonotic diseases – those diseases that spread from animals to humans. And they pose a massive risk to human health. Many people have died from ‘mad cow disease’ in the UK (and it still remains a risk). Swine flu caused a pandemic in both the UK and Asia six years ago. And a year ago there was an outbreak of bird flu in mainland Europe, which spread to the UK.

When we eat animals who are sick, we also become sick. A study published in 2012 found that zoonotic diseases result in 2.2 million people dying every year. This is not an insignificant number. Moreover, not all countries are affected equally. Findings show that Ethiopia, Nigeria, Tanzania and India had the highest rates of deaths associated with zoonotic diseases. Lead study author Delia Grace said:


From cyst-causing tapeworms to avian flu, zoonoses [zoonotic diseases] present a major threat to human and animal health. Targeting the diseases in the hardest-hit countries is crucial to protecting global health as well as to reducing severe levels of poverty and illness among the world’s 1 billion poor livestock keepers.


According to the researchers, 60% of all human diseases and 75% of all emerging infectious diseases are zoonotic, with most being attributable to livestock. At a 2004 conference, featuring the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the World Health Organization (WHO) and the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE), scientists stressed that “increasing demand for animal protein” is a primary factor influencing emerging zoonotic diseases.

Thus, it is crucial to efficiently and accurately detect various infectious diseases of livestock in real-time, since this has clear implications for human health.


Monitoring animal health

Fitness trackers have already been developed for cows. These e-collars can monitor vital signs and so can serve as an easy way to track the health of the cows. Biosensors, which can produce an accurate health status and disease diagnosis applicable to humans, are now being developed for livestock.

Wearable sensors will help farmers catch the disease early and prevent the deaths of many animals, which is especially important for the rural and urban poor in developing countries who so heavily depend on livestock for food. Farmers will also be able to cull diseased animals in a timely fashion to prevent the spread of disease. Since the global population is rapidly rising (along with the demand for meat, dairy and eggs), there is an ever pressing need for this technology to be improved and widely adopted.


About the author: Sam Woolfe @samwoolfe

Sam is a writer who is especially interested in space exploration, sustainability, animal agriculture, nutrition, wellbeing and smart drugs.


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