Eating Animals Has Caused Another Pandemic
Will We Ever Wake Up?
In the wake of the spreading COVID-19 pandemic, the world is figuring out how best to provide treatment for the hundreds of thousands caught up in this world-rattling event. Although disease outbreaks in the last few decades (Ebola, SARS, and others) provided insight into just how likely a pandemic of this magnitude would be, we chose to ignore the only way to successfully prevent pandemics.
What’s the common thread of these outbreaks, you ask? They have almost always started with people consuming products from animals.
Although the exact origin of COVID-19 has not yet been confirmed, experts believe that it almost certainly came from wildlife in the live-animal market in Wuhan, China, which 27 of the 41 initial cases were connected to. According to experts at NCBI, more than 75% of new infectious diseases in humans come from animals, with most of these originating in wildlife that is poached, hunted, or farmed. This is all part of a global industrial trade that sells billions of animals into wildlife markets for food, medicine, and pets.
Eating animals, particularly wildlife species, has caused a number of health crises over the years.
These unsanitary markets, which combine species from many different geographies and habitats, are the perfect ‘petri dish’ to allow pathogens that have evolved in other species to ‘jump’ to humans, either directly or via one or more intermediate hosts, which are often livestock such as pigs and chickens.
A lesser but still-emerging threat is from common farm animals (you know, animals we think are safer to eat), which can be reservoirs for pathogens that cause diseases such as anthrax, bird flu, and Mad Cow Disease, among others.
In fact, domestic animals are a very effective way for pathogens from wild animals to spread. Currently 67% of all the biomass of mammals on the planet is in the form of domestic animals like cows and pigs, while 32% are humans, leaving a paltry 1% in the form of wild mammal species. And the massive turnover in the industrial agriculture sector – killing their products for consumption – means that this 67% is constantly being replenished, so that there are even more individual animals that can serve as conduits for pathogens.
The conditions in wildlife markets create what are in essence do-it-yourself laboratories for the creation of natural biological weapons. If the world understood that there are tens of thousands of these unnatural ‘weapons-of-mass-destruction laboratories’ across the world, then we would shut them down immediately, pass laws to prevent any trade and consumption of wild animals, and shore up enforcement in line with other national security threats such as terrorism and nuclear weapons.
The economic toll of the current pandemic is unfolding in real time, causing market turmoil, business shutdowns and bankruptcies, as well as a reevaluation of the fundamentals of many sectors such as tourism, travel, and food and beverage.
We will not know the full extent of the damage for some time, but we know this: the relatively minimal revenues generated from the legal and illegal trade in wildlife will pale in comparison to the severe economic destruction throughout the world.
Some of the top estimates for all illegal wildlife trade is $7-23 billion per year, which is dwarfed by the bailout in the US under current consideration – over $1 trillion, and possibly more. If you took the total economic damage alone – bailouts, lost corporate revenue, bankruptcies, etc – which could end up in untold trillions, then it would pay for the lost revenues from shutting down wildlife trade for thousands of years. This does not take into account the incredible human toll – death, illness, and psychological impact.
So, what can we do to stop the next pandemic? First and foremost, all the world’s wildlife trade and markets must be shut down permanently through government and public action. Thus far, a ban on the consumption and farming of wild animals is being rolled out across China (this does not yet cover medicine, pet, or fur trading). Although it is unclear which animal transferred the virus to humans (bat, snake and pangolin have all been suggested), China acknowledged that it needs to stop wildlife trade if it is to prevent another outbreak like the coronavirus.
This isn’t the first time Chinese officials have tried to contain the trade. In 2003, civets — distant relatives of the mongoose — were banned and culled in large numbers after it was discovered that they likely transferred the SARS virus to humans. The selling of snakes was also briefly banned in Guangzhou after the SARS outbreak.
Sadly, it is possible that the government in China will not make this ban permanent, as wild animals have become both lucrative and a popular cuisine for many of its wealthiest citizens. For context, a government-sponsored report in 2017 by the Chinese Academy of Engineering found the country’s wildlife industry was worth more than $73 billion and employed more than one million people.
Another meaningful barrier to a permanent ban on the wildlife trade is the use of wild animals in traditional Chinese medicine. Beijing has been strongly promoting the use of traditional Chinese medicine under President Xi Jinping and the industry is now worth an estimated $130 billion.
However, other countries such as Vietnam are waking up to the threat of the wildlife trade, and are poised to enact bans as well. China, Vietnam, and others should take the lead and encourage every country in the world to close all wildlife trade, so that the global community can prevent the next pandemic.
Not only is it unbelievably dangerous to continue capturing wild animals for food, medicine, and pets, we as a global community need to seriously reconsider our consumption of animals in general.
The need to feed almost 8 billion people on a diet high in animal products means that we need to turn most of our planet into pastures and feedlots for domestic animals (it takes 20-100 times more land to produce the equivalent calories from animals instead of plants). Ironically, the consumption of domestic animals such as cows is driving the destruction of tropical forests and other ecosystems that harbor diverse species – the same ones that are increasingly hunted for wildlife markets and spilling disease over into humans.
In the Amazon alone, it’s estimated that 80-90% of deforestation is for cattle pastures and cattle feed (soybeans and corn) – the apocalyptic photos of fires in 2019 were due to legal and illegal cattle ranchers slash and burning the tattered frontiers of Amazonian forest. Left alone, wild species and ecosystems maintain the health of our planet – carbon storage, clean air, and indeed the sources of virtually all medicines (which we then take and modify in laboratories) to combat the very diseases we’re inflicted on ourselves.
Gone are the days when most of the animals we consumed roamed the countryside. Today, most of the animals we eat are crammed in cages, stacked together in warehouses and pumped full of drugs to keep them from getting sick. 99% of US farmed animals are living in factory farms (estimates show that 70.4% of cows, 98.3% of pigs, 99.8% of turkeys, 98.2% of chickens raised for eggs, and over 99.9% of chickens raised for meat are living in factory farms).
This mini-movie from Chipotle does a good job illustrating how our modern meat system works:
Beyond the horrific conditions these animals are forced to live in, we’re also pumping many of them full of antibiotics. According to the FDA, more than 20 million pounds of medically important antibiotic drugs were sold for use on livestock farms in 2014 — about 80 percent of all antibiotics sold.
Why does that matter? Well, when we humans eat these drug-filled animals, we end up consuming the antibiotics as well. Which means we’re becoming more immune to the life saving drugs we need when we really get sick. It also means that new “super bugs” are rising up for which we have no cure for yet. Sounding familiar?
We have to come to grips with how out of control our food system has become, and how quickly it is ravaging our natural resources and our health in the process. Not to mention, if we as a society want to restore our clearly failing ecosystems around the world, we have to start treating each other and all of the natural beings in the world with compassion.
One of the few positives to this virus is that we now have a lot more time at home, where we can think about what’s important in life and how fragile the ecosystems of our little blue planet really are.
The tapestry of life is being pulled apart by our forks, one bite at a time. Yet, we now have more options than ever before to change our eating habits and help return the world to one of balance and resilience. The question is, will we?
- The next pandemic is already coming, unless humans change how we interact with wildlife, scientists say (Washington Post)
- Is factory farming to blame for coronavirus? (The Guardian)
- Reducing pandemic risk begins with ending factory farming (The Hill)
- Root Cause of Pandemics: our seemingly insatiable desire to eat meat (Scientific American)
- Chinese food will determine the spread of pandemics (Bloomberg)
- How wildlife markets and factory farms guarantee frequent new deadly diseases (Medium)
- 5 modern diseases grown by factory farming (The Week)
- We need to rethink our food system to prevent the next pandemic (TIME)