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Scientists Warn of the Link Between Animal Agriculture and Future Pandemics

By Tyler, Global Vegans

The environmental impact of intensive farming is well-documented, but scientists have now warned that the world’s demand for cheap and readily accessible meat could have catastrophic consequences that far surpass anything we have seen before. Specifically, global farming and animal interaction could be responsible for future pandemics that are far more destructive than any we have previously dealt with.

This includes the Covid-19 pandemic, which as of February 2021 has infected over 106 million people worldwide, halted international travel and devastated economies across the globe. Researchers from the University of the Free State (UFS) in South Africa believe that future pandemics caused by animal-to-human infection could have results that exceed even these.

Professor Robert Bragg from UFS said: “There will be more pandemics, and there is a feeling among some scientists that this could just be a dress rehearsal for the real big pandemic.”

SARS-CoV- 2 - the highly infectious virus responsible for what we know as Covid-19 - is believed to have originated in Wuhan, China. A zoonotic disease, researchers believe the virus jumped between infected bats and live animals kept and sold for meat in wet markets before being picked up by humans. Animals that have been domesticated or are sold for meat simply act as virus hosts in the transmission of zoonotic diseases.

Wet markets are the perfect environment for pathogens to spread and mutate. Often, live animals such as chickens and fish are kept in cramped conditions until being bought and slaughtered. Some wet markets also sell wild animals, such as snakes and crocodiles, although this isn’t as common. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), three-quarters of emerging zoonotic diseases, such as Covid-19, are first transmitted by wild animals.

What’s more, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) predicts that 75% of new and emerging diseases in people first originate in animals. Diseases can spread in myriad ways, including through direct contact, indirect contact and from eating the meat of infected animals.

Professor Aliza le Roux from the UFS points out that wet markets in China and throughout Asia aren’t solely responsible for the increase in zoonotic disease transmission. Factory farming also plays a role. She said: “Our demand for meat is driving cheaper and less controlled agricultural practices, cramming more animals into smaller spaces, feeding them less and less natural fodder.”

Unsanitary conditions, poor nutrition, dehydration and stress weaken animal immune systems and leave cows, pigs, chickens, sheep and goats more vulnerable to becoming infected with harmful bugs. This allows factory farms to very rapidly become epicentres for diseases. In any environment where large populations of animals are kept in unnaturally close quarters, the threat of disease is high.

Intensive farming environments have been linked to many of the most severe zoonotic disease outbreaks in history. Perhaps the most famous is the 1918 flu pandemic, which killed over 50 million people worldwide and reportedly originated in pigs. Pigs are also thought to be the original transmitters of swine flu, which was declared a pandemic in 2009 by the WHO.

Additionally, recent reports suggest that the overuse of antibiotics in factory farming environments is driving antibiotic resistance in humans, a health crisis that could further contribute to the quick spread of infectious diseases. Currently, antibiotic usage in the US is highest amongst animals that are bred and farmed for food.

Despite the link between animal agriculture and disease - and the far-reaching effects of the Covid-19 pandemic - meat sales have continued to rise. For example, in December 2020, Kantar recorded a 36% increase in the sale of turkeys in the UK from the 2019 Christmas period.

The meat industry - and global demand for cheap meat - has also played a significant role in stimulating mass Covid-19 outbreaks. Throughout 2020, abattoirs and meat-packing plants across the world became hotspots for infection; often due to workers standing side-by-side and coming into regular contact with damp surfaces where germs linger.

The world’s relationship with animals must change. Ethical concerns and environmental devastation may not be enough to challenge the attitudes of billions of people across the globe, but perhaps the realisation that animal agriculture could be responsible for extremely destructive pandemics will be. It’s time to listen to what science and common sense are telling us.

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