On the new report “Preventing the next pandemic: Zoonotic diseases and how to break the chain of transmission,” released yesterday, scientists of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) warned that factors like agricultural intensification, increased demand for animal protein, deforestation, and climate change could lead to the emergence of new pandemics that originate in animals before spreading to humans, similar to the Covid-19 (or new coronavirus).
“These drivers are destroying natural habitats and seeing humanity exploiting more species, which brings people into closer contact with disease vectors. Once established in humans, these diseases quickly spread across our interconnected world, as we have seen with Covid-19”, said Inger Andersen, UNEP's Executive Director.
The report explains that animals like cows, pigs, and chickens can help spread diseases because they are now often bred “in less than ideal conditions” for higher production levels, and are genetically very similar, so they are also more vulnerable to infection than genetically diverse populations. To make it worse, most farmed animals are now in factory farms, industrial facilities that confine thousands of animals together and do not allow physical distancing between the animals.
In many medium and low-income countries, like Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Thailand, and Indonesia, UNEP says there is a rapid increase in the consumption of animal products, making meat production grow 260% and eggs 340% globally in the last 50 years. It comes with no surprise that, according to the report, “since 1940, agricultural intensification measures such as dams, irrigation projects, and factory farms have been associated with more than 25 percent of all—and more than 50 percent of zoonotic—infectious diseases that have emerged in humans.”
Also, in poorer countries, highlights UNEP, there are additional risk factors because livestock production often occurs close to cities, biosecurity and basic husbandry practices are often inadequate, animal waste is often poorly managed, and antimicrobial drugs are used to mask poor conditions or practices.
Environmental destruction and farming of wild animals are also risk factors
Moreover, animal agriculture is also leading to environmental destruction. “Around one-third of croplands are used for animal feed. In some countries, this is driving deforestation,” says UNEP. Deforestation plays a major role in worsening climate change, a factor that increases the risk of pandemics. The destruction of native forests has been associated with an increase in infectious diseases such as dengue fever, malaria, and yellow fever.
The report also explores the increasing demand for not only traditional meats but also the meat of wild animals, which is leading to new species being farmed. This is one of the factors that explain the emergence of SARS-CoV and SARS-CoV-2 in East Asia and the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS-CoV), transmitted from dromedary camels to humans as there is a shift from extensive to intensive camel production systems. First identified in Saudi Arabia, the disease has now spread to 27 countries.
NGO asks leaders to take action
The findings of the UN body were welcomed by Sinergia Animal, an NGO that advocates for plant-based diets. “We could be living a much more sustainable and safe reality if it wasn’t for the urge for animal protein”, says Carolina Galvani, Sinergia Animal's CEO.“We can no longer be so reliant on a food system that is putting our ecosystems and health at risk.”
The NGO Sinergia Animal launched a campaign called “Before it is too late” that asks Colombian, Argentinian, Chilean, Thai, and Indonesian leaders to take action to prevent future pandemics by stopping deforestation, halting the irresponsible use of drugs in animal farms and changing food systems so they become less dependent on intensive livestock operations.
Similarly, UNEP calls for the “one health” approach, which is a method that looks to comprehend the complex relationship between the environment, biodiversity, human society, and human diseases by uniting public health, veterinary, and environmental expertise. It is important, according to the UN body, not only to respond better to future disease outbreaks and pandemics, but also to avoid new ones.