There is a fundamental and often-overlooked connection between pandemics such as the current COVID-19 crisis and our animal-based food system, says a major new report published yesterday.
The Food & Pandemics Report, produced by ProVeg International, identifies the eating and farming of animals as the single most risky human behavior in relation to pandemics, and calls for urgent changes to the global food system in order to prevent future outbreaks. The report has drawn support from inside the UN Environment Program (UNEP).
Dr. Musonda Mumba, Chief of the Terrestrial Ecosystems Unit of the UNEP, said: “The ProVeg report clearly demonstrates the connection between industrial animal production and the increased risk of pandemics. Never before have so many opportunities existed for pathogens to jump from wild and domestic animals to people.”
The report finds that our dietary choices and the global food system are the key drivers of zoonoses (diseases such as COVID-19, which are transmitted from non-human animals to humans) in three clear and mutually reinforcing ways:
1) Through the destruction of animals’ natural habitats and loss of biodiversity, driven largely by animal agriculture.
2) Through the use of wild animals as food.
3) Through the use of farmed animals as food in intensified animal agriculture.
About 75% of all emerging infectious diseases are zoonotic in nature. Zoonotic diseases, which include SARS, MERS, Ebola, rabies, and certain forms of influenza, are responsible for an estimated 2.5 billion cases of illness and 2.7 million deaths worldwide, every year.
Although the origins of such outbreaks tend to be associated with wild animals, as is assumed with COVID-19, pathogens also jump from wild animals to farmed animals before being transmitted to humans – as was the case with recent pandemic threats such as avian flu and swine flu.
Michael Webermann, US Executive Director of ProVeg International, said: “The recipe for disaster is surprisingly simple: one animal, one mutation, one human, and a single point of contact. We don’t yet know the full story about the emergence of COVID-19, but there is no uncertainty regarding swine flu and avian flu: those viruses evolved on factory farms, where conditions are perfect for the evolution and transmission of viruses, as well as for the development of antimicrobial resistance. Factory farms are perfect breeding grounds for future pandemics.”
The Food & Pandemics Report follows a number of reports with similar findings published in recent weeks by WWF, the University of Cambridge, and the UN Environment Program. There is a growing consensus among NGOs, academic institutions, and the scientific community that the global food system needs to change if we are to prevent future pandemics.
Featured image: a hen at a factory farm. Image credit Jo-Anne McArthur / We Animals.