Making Connections: Pandemics, Animal Agriculture, and Climate Change

In the past month, there has been a media frenzy on the spread of the novel COVID-19 virus and the risks associated with the related pandemic. While there has been an unrelenting focus on the pandemic’s current effects, there has been relatively little attention given to the root of this issue: animal agriculture. Moreover, the implications that our changing climate has for future pandemics has been overlooked. 

COVID-19 is a zoonotic disease, meaning it is caused by germs that spread between animals and humans. This occurs when human hosts are exposed to infected animal livestock or wildlife tissues or fluids that carry the disease. The spread of zoonotic diseases is often perpetuated through unsanitary mass agricultural practices and the encroachment on wild habitats. Agriculture is amongst the highest risk vectors for the transmission and spread of zoonotic diseases. Farmed and caged animals are “the perfect breeding ground for zoonotic diseases” due to the high density, high stress (which leads to compromised immune systems), poor sanitation, and unnatural diets in animal agriculture. Antibiotics are becoming  increasingly ineffective in preventing the spread of zoonoses, as they are excessively used by farmers as prophylactics or to optimize livestock growth. 

The majority of farmed animals worldwide live on factory farms, such as this industrial chicken coop.

The reduction of native habitat is also a driving force behind the spread of zoonoses. As species are forced into ever decreasing corridors, they come into closer and more frequent contact with each other and humans. This exacerbates the spread of disease between animals and, ultimately, to humans.

Both industrial scale farming and habitat destruction further increase the proximity between animals and between animals and humans, increasing the opportunity for the spread of zoonotic diseases. It is important to note that the conditions that allow for the spread of disease are not by any means exclusive to non-industrialized countries – mass animal agriculture and habitat destruction are common practice in industrialized nations. 

The COVID-19 outbreak, which is believed to have been transmitted from animal to human in a wet market in Wuhan, by no means stands alone as an epidemic outbreak propagated by mass animal agriculture. Most of the large epidemics that have plagued the world both in the modern world and throughout history have been zoonotic diseases. The Black Death, the pandemic which ravaged Europe, Asia, and Africa in the 14th century, was caused by fleas carried by rats. The majority of modern pandemics have been zoonotic diseases, including the Bird Flu (H1N1), Nipah Virus, and the Swine Flu. It is important to note that while the swine flu originated in pig factory farming in the US, it wasn’t called the “American virus” by foreign leaders (I’m looking at you, Trump). 

Preventing the future spread of pandemics requires an examination of the international community’s approach in addressing disease. The crux is the contrast between taking preventative versus reactive treatment measures. 

The status quo response to pandemics is one that is reactive and includes draconian measures taken to contain and slow the spread of the pandemic: nation-wide lockdowns, travel restrictions, and economic recession. This comes at the expense of hundreds of thousands of individuals’ lives and the well-being and vibrance of the world’s economy.  There are currently over 124,000 deaths and counting worldwide due to COVID-19, and the International Monetary Fund has stated that the worldwide economy is facing its largest economic recession since the Great Depression. Economic downturns are not exclusive to the COVID-19 outbreak: the 2003 SARS epidemic cost the global economy $40 billion, the 2009 swine flu epidemic $50 billion, and the 2014-16 West African Ebola epidemic cost nearly $53 billion

The spread of novel zoonotic diseases are set to increase in the coming years as industrialization and ecosystem destruction increase. Additionally, the demand for greater food production and animal products is projected to increase with global population growth. It is paramount that we not only find a balance between proactive and reactive measures, but we begin to move away from high risk practices in the agricultural industry. Clearly, pandemics caused by zoonotic diseases pose an immense threat to international health and economic growth. As researchers at UC Davis’ One Health Institute put it, Few threats to human health have the potential to cause more impact than emerging zoonoses.”

The question this poses: is our “need” to consume animal products worth thousands of lives and billions of dollars lost?

So, what are the solutions? Modernizing or eliminating animal agriculture and minimizing the shrinking of natural habitat are proactive measures that would prevent the frequency and magnitude of future zoonotic pandemics (not to mention that they would be great for the environment and animals rights!). 

Massive disruption of our current food system is possible due to recent technological developments. There are several viable plant-based meats that have recently come onto the market, including Beyond Meat and the Impossible Burger. Cultivated meat, which is grown from animal cells from a culture in a lab, will likely soon be entering the market and contains the same nutritional value and taste since it is “real” meat. And of course, the environmental impact of cultivated meat will be lower, and animal rights concerns are virtually non-existent. These new developments in non-mass agricultural meat have huge benefits for food safety and food source sustainability. 

The jury is out: given the abundant experiential evidence that we have about the devastating impact of zoonotic disease pandemics, it has clearly been demonstrated that the current agriculture system is unsustainable and unsafe. As an international community, we cannot afford not to approach solving the underlying cause of this pandemic with the same urgency as the world’s reactive response to the COVID-19 pandemic. There is a real and strong need to support and accelerate the development of modern, plant-based alternatives to meat and other animal products.

Link to Climate Change

Animal agriculture, which is the most direct link to the rise of pandemics, is also a leading cause of climate change. The irony lies in that the devastating effects of climate change will in turn  exacerbate the intensity and frequency of pandemics to come.

Even though COVID-19 isn’t directly related to climate change, the emergence of many other diseases will occur due to its repercussions. The melting of permafrost, the semi-frozen soil of the arctic tundra, will unleash many diseases that may have been frozen for millenia. Many believe that humankind is at extreme risk because these diseases may predate modern humans. Our immune systems may not have been exposed to similar diseases and as a result, the general population may be particularly vulnerable. Climate change will potentially change a region's geographic stability of disease occurrences. For example, while mosquitos and the diseases they carried were once confined to tropic regions, at the rate of current change, mosquito regions are moving 30 miles north per decade

While there is no direct link between climate change and COVID-19, this virus can be seen as a “fire drill” for the strain on and potential breakdown of our food, travel, and energy systems. Just as COVID-19 has pushed the networks  that we take for granted to the brink of collapse, climate change will almost certainly do the same. Climate change has been linked to increasing the frequency and magnitude of natural disasters including fires, hurricanes, and floods. Climate change will therefore put a tremendous strain on the response networks we depend on during these catastrophes.

Interesting parallels can also be drawn between the call-and-response between scientists and political leaders regarding pandemics versus climate change. While scientists issue dire warnings about the risks of future destruction, the political response often doesn’t reflect this urgency. Political inaction is reflective of a culture of distrusting science and litmus tests have become common in our current political climate.

For years, scientists have warned that the world needed to be prepared for a pandemic. A report published in September 2019 at the request of the UN warned of the devastating effects of a global pandemic. It stated that a deadly pathogen that was spread airborne could kill up to 80 million people and decrease the world’s economy by 5%

Scientists have been warning the public and elected officials about the dire urgency and effects of climate change for decades, starting as early as the 1960s (a more in depth report of early, and nearly successful attempts to solve the climate crisis can be found here). 

The political response across the board for pandemics and climate change is underestimation or flat-out denial. The denial of COVID-19 as a pandemic threat was common until a few weeks ago, with President Trump calling it a “hoax”. Sadly, there is similar apathy or even denial in response to scientists’ warnings about the future effects of climate change. It is a sad reality that many of our current elected officials will only act when the repercussions are clear as day and when people are dying. History has taught us that when reacting to calamities our options are typically much more limited and sacrifices much costlier.

Addressing these issues will require bipartisan trust in science and our ability to work together as a society to effectively solve these issues. 

The Bottom Line: Share this article with family and friends to inform others about the connection between animal agriculture and epidemics like COVID-19, and to urge others to take action to address climate change! 

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