In a letter to 22 leading financial institutions worldwide, the signatories, who include Jane Goodall, warn that industrial livestock production increases the potential for further disease outbreaks, and contributes to dangerous antibiotic resistance.
It was sent to banking giants including JP Morgan Chase, Standard Chartered, HSBC, Lloyds, Santander and NatWest, as well as the World Bank, the European Investment Bank and the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development.
The 94 signatories also include television cook Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, Tim Lang, professor of food policy at City University London, actor Joanna Lumley and environmentalist Stanley Johnson.
Experts from both the UN and the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) have pinpointed animals or food of animal origin as a starting point for emerging diseases.
Eco activists have long argued that global financiers should not bankroll livestock corporations that risk environmental damage.
In the past five years, meat and dairy companies worldwide received at least $478bn (£370bn) in backing from more than 2,500 investment firms, banks, and pension funds, according to a report this year by Feedback, a UK group lobbying for changes to the food system.
High street banks provide billions in loans to the firms behind US chlorinated chicken, it said.
And over the past decade, the World Bank’s private investment arm has channelled more than $1.8bn into major livestock and factory farming operations around the world, according to research by Mongabay and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism.
Urging them to end their support for or funding of industrial livestock systems, the new letter says: “As the world seeks to ‘build back better’ after Covid-19, it is widely recognised that we need to rethink our relationship with the natural world and to treat it, and the creatures within it, with more respect. This will involve reshaping the way in which we feed ourselves.”
The document highlights studies showing that the crowded, stressful conditions of industrial livestock production “contribute to the emergence, spread and amplification of pathogens, some of which are zoonotic”.
Sean Gifford, of Compassion in World Farming, which coordinated the letter, said: “It’s vital that global financial institutions stop funding industrial livestock production and instead support regenerative forms of agriculture that are not only better for human health but also kinder to animals and the planet.
“We are at a turning point in history and we need major financial institutions and intergovernmental organisations to act now. The need has never been more pressing.”
A spokeswoman for UK Finance, which represents banks and the finance industry, said: “The banking and finance industry can play a central role in delivering a post-Covid economic recovery that is aligned not only to the government’s net-zero target but also to be approached in a fair, just and inclusive way.
"Banking and finance firms already play an important part in supporting local networks comprising of corporates, SMEs, local authorities, universities and other sources of expertise including agriculture. Lenders take their agricultural policies very seriously and regularly assess clients on their commitment to sustainable business practices.”
A World Bank spokesperson said that engaging in the livestock sector was an opportunity to create jobs, generate wealth, advance climate action, strengthen global health and put food systems on a more sustainable footing, adding: “The World Bank Group is committed to supporting the sector’s evolution toward better practices that result in better sustainable development outcomes.”
The Independent has also asked the IMF to comment.
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