Coronavirus: World leaders must urgently phase out factory farming to cut future pandemics risk, says report

Paper calls for those in power to shift global diets to plant-based, ending industrial animal agriculture

Jane Dalton
Tuesday 06 October 2020 15:55 BST
Keeping meat animals in conditions where they are stressed creates conditions for new viruses to form

Countries’ leaders should speed up action to shift people’s diets towards more plant-based foods to reduce the risks of future pandemics breaking out, according to a new report by campaigners.

Global intensive animal farming, in which thousands of animals are kept in close proximity, causing high stress levels, is the perfect breeding ground for more novel viruses to emerge, says the white paper by Humane Society International.  

The document identifies five key “pandemic risks” created by factory farming that it says create a “petri dish” for pathogens to erupt, mutate and spread:

  • confining vast numbers of stressed animals indoors creates novel viral strains because their immune systems are weakened so they succumb to viruses easily
  • expanding farms into previously wild areas brings wild and domestic species together, allowing diseases to jump
  • concentrating animal farms in an area increases the risk of pathogens spreading
  • the global live animal trade, in which huge numbers of live animals are transported globally, allows viruses to travel
  • agricultural fairs and auctions and live animal markets where the public get close to species from different places, let viruses proliferate.

UN experts have previously said that industrial animal farming has caused most new infectious diseases in humans in the past decade – and risks starting new pandemics.

Inger Andersen, executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), said zoonoses – diseases that jump from animals to humans – usually spread from wild animals to farmed.

The UNEP warned in 2016 of new diseases from animals, amplified by the world’s rising population of livestock for meat and dairy.

In addition, some of the world’s leading scientists , from the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), have warned that future pandemics are likely to be more frequent, spread more rapidly and kill more people if humanity fails to transform how it is damaging the environment and exploiting wildlife.  

Outbreaks of dangerous new diseases with the potential to become pandemics are on the rise, having become four times as frequent in the past half-century. 

Farmed animals have been at the heart of most of them, including Sars, Mers, Ebola, bird flu, swine flu and the Zika virus. 

The H5N1 virus – or avian flu – which was transmitted from poultry to humans, has a 60 per cent mortality rate among people. According to the World Health Organisation, it has not gone away, but is thought to have mutated.

In the summer, the government launched the first part of a new national food strategy report, looking at the food system in the light of Covid-19, which warned that England's eating habits were a "slow-motion disaster".

The review warned of "wilfully misleading" packaging that can give a false impression that foods are healthy. The second part will examine the whole food system.

Claire Bass, executive director of Humane Society International UK, said: “We await part two of the government’s national food strategy in 2021, which will look at the food system, its power dynamics and the harm it does.  

“Covid-19 has shown clearly that we cannot keep pushing animals to the limit of their endurance and expect to remain isolated from the effects. The food strategy must robustly challenge our love affair with cheap meat, and rapidly chart a course towards plant-centric diets as the new norm.

“Consumers have already begun this revolution, and the plant-based food market is booming.”

To prevent another outbreak of zoonotic viruses HSI is calling for public policies favouring the production of plant-based foods instead of expanding animal agriculture. and a cut in the number of animals raised for human food, to reduce animal population density. 

A spokesperson for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said: “It is vital that any animal products are sourced safely, sustainably and legally. We have some of the highest animal welfare standards in the world, as well as world-leading scientific capability on animal health, and we are continuing to explore ways to enhance our position as a global leader.”

A survey has found that almost half of Britons who eat meat feel hypocritical for loving animals while eating others.

When asked how strongly they agree with the statement “it’s hypocritical that we eat some animals, such as pigs, while loving others, such as dogs, and keeping them as pets”, 47.8 per cent of respondents either slightly or strongly agreed. 

The survey, commissioned by Future Normal and The Vegan Society, also found 40.3 per cent of respondents expressed guilt to either some or a great extent about eating meat.

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