Animal-to-Human Diseases: How Our Food Choices Birth Pandemics

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Animal-to-Human Diseases: How Our Food Choices Birth Pandemics

COVID-19 will not be the only big outbreak of an animal-to-human disease we see in our lifetime.

If you’ve been following our stories for a while, you’ll already know that Essential Millennial advocates a plant-based lifestyle. It’s perfectly normal to enjoy a good steak, but it’s becoming more and more evident that the consumption of animals for food comes with massive environmental and health-related costs. With the persistent spread of the coronavirus pandemic, which seems to be devouring the world as if it too is nothing more than a tasty sirloin, the conversation around the spread of animal-to-human diseases is becoming increasingly important.

You can try to deny it all you want, but the evidence remains: Zoonotic diseases – diseases which jump from animal to human populations – are increasing rapidly. Last week, the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) jointly released a report (which you can download here) in which they identified seven trends responsible for zoonotic diseases.

These trends include extraction of natural resources, urbanisation, intensive and unsustainable farming methods, exploitation of wildlife, increased travel and transportation, and climate change. Unfortunately for meat-lovers they also include the increasing global consumption of meat products. In short, this coronavirus pandemic, as well as outbreaks of other zoonotic diseases are side-effects of the way we as human beings have been exploiting our environment and being narrow-minded about our food choices.

The UN isn’t alone in believing that viruses are jumping from animals to humans at an alarming rate, either. WWF International chief scientist and senior vice-president, Rebecca Shaw, agrees there has been a rise in the emergence of infectious diseases from animals, with roughly two new diseases emerging every single year. Shaw, too, acknowledges that how and where our food is produced plays a big role in the spread of these diseases.

animal-to-human diseases

While the media has been focusing on spreading information about how to handle and slow the spread of COVID-19, says the UNEP report, they’ve neglected to inform the public of one of the most important factors when it comes to animal-to-human disease emergence. Regarding COVID-19 in particular, the report states:

“These articles and reports emphasise the prevention and treatment of this contagious disease, or discuss ways to safeguard livelihoods, secure nutrition and re-build national or regional economies that are facing recessions. However, there are almost no scientific assessments that evaluate the issues that may hamper our global efforts to reduce the risk of future zoonotic pandemics in a post-COVID-19 world.”

This pandemic didn’t come as a surprise to epidemiologists and people studying zoonotic diseases. At the same time, those same people are insisting that COVID-19 will not be the last big outbreak to affect us. So, why are people not making more effort to prevent us from having to go through all of this again in a couple of years time? It only takes a glance at the news, and the stories about cases of bubonic plague in China and Madagascar, and the new H1N1 virus currently also spreading in China, to know that the experts warning us about the likelihood of further epidemics and pandemics know what they’re talking about.

one health : animal-to-human diseases

Source: One Planet, One Health, 2019, edited by Merrilyn Walton. Find the link in our further reading section at the bottom of this article.

“The science is clear that if we keep exploiting wildlife and destroying our ecosystems, then we can expect to see a steady stream of these diseases jumping from animals to humans in the years ahead,” UNEP Executive Director Inger Andersen is quoted by Al Jazeera.

“We were warned that the current pandemic was not a matter of if but when. And it is a human failing that we predict, but we do not prepare.”

According to Al Jazeera, about 75% of emerging diseases are contracted from animal species. The coronavirus outbreak is only one in a very long list of rapidly increasing diseases to have jumped the species barrier. Others include Zika, MERS, SARS, Swine Flu, West Nile Fever, Bovine Tuberculosis, Anthrax and Ebola. This is predominantly due to the fact that we’re living with, and farming, increasing numbers of animals.

The UNEP report explains that the novel coronavirus we’re fighting now is not even the first coronavirus to have jumped to humans as a direct result of farming practices.

In the post-World War I United States, intensification of poultry systems based on bird confinement (that is keeping more chickens in smaller spaces) and new breeding techniques (causing less genetic variation and disease resistance) resulted in the emergence of infectious bronchitis virus. This disease is now prevalent in all countries with an intensive poultry industry. Likewise, more intensive pig farming after WW2 gave rise to epidemics of the transmissible gastroenteritis (TGE) virus and porcine epidemic diarrhoea (PED) virus. While PED poses no risk to humans (yet), it’s a great example of how quickly these diseases can spread through closely packed groups of domestic animals.

Pigs carry animal-to-human diseases

Photo by Matthias Zomer from Pexels

“These coronavirus disease outbreaks followed rapid intensification of agricultural practices and systems, and dramatic changes in the ways animals were kept or farmed, many of which were made without proper precautionary measures being taken.”

Considering that meat production has increased about 260% over the last 50 years, it should be no surprise that we’re seeing so many serious after-effects catching up with us. This is even more obvious due to the fact that humans and livestock make up 96% of the global mammal biomass. To summarise, farming with animals is kinda gross, done on a scale that is not sustainable, and creates the perfect environments for diseases to spread. Those diseases are not always content with infecting only animal hosts.

The science is clear that if we don’t change our behavioural patterns quickly, we can expect more of these animal to human diseases to jump the species barrier in the years ahead. Next time you want to complain about having to wear your mask out, remember that we humans have nobody to blame for the current situation but ourselves.

This alone should be enough motivation to prompt behavioural changes on a personal scale –and it we haven’t even mentioned the way the industrialisation of our food chain contributes to global obesity, or how habitat loss due to animal agriculture is a major threat to many endangered wild species.

Andersen writes in the UNEP report: “At the heart of our response to zoonoses and the other challenges humanity faces should be the simple idea that the health of humanity depends on the health of the planet and the health of other species. If humanity gives nature a chance to breathe, it will be our greatest ally as we seek to build a fairer, greener and safer world for everyone.”

Interested in Learning more about about the spread of animal-to-human diseases? We’ve got some great sources for you:

For some simple and tasty, plant-based recipes, keep an eye on our growing Essential Kitchen page!

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