The emergence of COVID-19 has been linked to wildlife in wet markets in China and has already affected more than 1.3 million people. Although wet markets are not common in the west, industrial livestock farming is – and may carry just as a great a risk.
Due to the close proximity of a wide variety of species, wet markets that sell and slaughter live wild animals form a perfect breeding ground for the transmission of viruses from animals to humans. But these wet markets do not have a monopoly on the development and spread of zoonotic diseases. On factory farms, animals are reared as mere commodities, with nothing but profit in mind. This global pandemic has proven that never before has there been a more potent example of how the health of animals – be they wild or farmed – and people are so closely interlinked.
This current pandemic has not originated from the factory farming of animals. However, I fear the next one could easily come from an incarcerated pig or chicken.
A warning shot
Looking back at recent history, it feels as though we, as humanity, have been given multiple warning shots. But we haven’t listened, and we haven’t learned.
In the 90s, cattle in the UK began to exhibit abnormal behavior, including difficulty moving and weight loss, which were eventually associated with Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy, more commonly known as ‘Mad Cow Disease’. This disease, which is believed to have spread when cattle consumed infected meat-and-bone meal, was transferable to humans through the consumption of infected cattle meat.
Swine fever and bird flu are two more recent examples of zoonotic diseases caused by viruses that spread quickly amongst animals, particularly those that have a reduced immunity to disease and live in crowded conditions – factory farmed animals.
But the animals are not the only victims: the overcrowded, intensive systems function like pressure cookers in which viruses can mutate quickly and threaten human health. The first major pandemic of this century, the Mexican flu in 2009, originated in the pig industry and killed almost 17,500 people. Just a few years ago, China was warned that a new highly deadly variant of the H7N9 bird flu virus – which killed as many as 40% of those afflicted since 2013 – could become a pandemic.
The worldwide growth of industrial livestock farming also increases the chance that people will come into contact with wildlife. To feed the billions of animals farmed globally, forests are being cut down on a large scale to grow fodder. As a result, natural habitats are shrinking, ecosystems are disrupted, biodiversity is lost, and human interaction with wild species is boosted. Scientists have concluded that such ecological disruption is a significant factor in the emergence of new infectious diseases in humans. The Ebola virus, which is believed to have originated in bats or non-human primates, and which kills 90% of those infected, is an example of just that.
The real solution
There is no doubt that we still need answers to a lot of questions regarding this pandemic – on medical, scientific and societal levels. However, if the current health crisis makes one thing clear, it is that we must interact with animals in a completely different way. It is not enough to simply close wet markets. They are just the tip of the iceberg. We must also put an end to industrial livestock farming, because it entails great risks for human and animal health, and for the environment.
The real solution is to aspire to and act upon, the creation of a healthy food system that respects animals, humans and the planet. This is possible, by leaving wild habitats intact; restoring ecosystems and biodiversity; rearing fewer livestock animals but ensuring those that we do farm, are in higher welfare environments; and making healthy and nutritious foods accessible to everyone.
When this crisis is over, we will need to rethink how we treat all animals to prevent another pandemic from occurring. Let’s hope this time we listen to what nature is telling us, and we learn.
By Nick Palmer, Compassion in World Farming’s Head of UK