Exclusive: ‘Zoonoses often take that route… and the more you have of a thing, the more that thing is going to be the likely conveyor,’ says UN environment chief
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, such as Covid-19, which has killed more than 270,000 people worldwide.
And a separate report has cautioned that replacing Asia’s open-air slaughter markets with factory farming for meat would create similarly dangerous conditions for highly virulent flu strains to breed.
Valentina Rizzi, an expert in disease at the EFSA, said: “The diseases transmitted directly or indirectly from animals – including livestock – to humans are called zoonoses. A big proportion of all infectious diseases in humans are originating from animals, and more specifically the majority of emerging new infection in humans in the last 10 years really come from animals or food of animal origin.”
Inger Andersen, executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) told One Earth: “The virus usually originates in the wild, is transmitted often by wild birds, bats etc into livestock – domesticated animals.
“And the probability is the more you have of a thing, the more that thing is going to be the likely conveyor.”
The UNEP warned in 2016 of new diseases from animals, amplified by the world’s rising population of livestock for meat and dairy.
Ms Andersen said the more we as consumers demand protein from livestock and meat, the more the market would respond.
The experts spoke out as governments worldwide are facing a clamour of calls to ban live animal slaughter markets, such as that in Wuhan, linked to the emergence of the coronavirus. The World Health Organization has been pressured to intervene.
The Independent‘s campaign Stop the Wildlife Trade is calling for the trade to be strictly controlled and regulated.
Viruses such as Covid-19 have been linked to street stalls in southeast Asia and India, where animals are susceptible to disease because the stress caused by such close confinement and the sight of others being slaughtered is believed to weaken their immune systems.
A new report, called Is the next Pandemic on our Plate?, says the similarly crowded conditions of industrial agriculture play a key role in the emergence of pathogens.
Peter Stevenson, chief policy adviser at Compassion in World Farming and author of the document, said policymakers “must resist arguments that wet markets should be replaced by factory farming, or that industrial farming is needed to provide cheap food to feed the growing world population”.
The paper sets out ways to switch to keeping animals in “health-oriented” systems in which the wellbeing of the animal is prioritised so stress and disease vulnerability are reduced.
Food should be regarded as a public good, not as a tradeable commodity, according to the report, which suggests economic policies that would allow for sustainable agriculture and a “nutritious, equitable” food system.
“Maintaining a flawed global food system can and will lead to further pandemics,” he said.
Earlier this week researchers led by the University of Sheffield and Bath warned that intensive farming, involving overuse of antibiotics, high numbers of animals, and low genetic diversity are hotbeds for pathogens to spread.