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Eat less meat to guard against future pandemics

Our diets and farming habits must change to limit the risk of diseases such as Covid-19, according to a new report

Posted : 6 December 2020

If you thought the coronavirus was bad, just what till you see what other nasty bugs the animal kingdom has in store for us if we don’t cut back on the amount of meat we eat.

A new report draws a clear line between an increase in the number of dangerous illnesses being transmitted from animals to humans – zoonotic diseases – and the destruction of the natural world to raise livestock and grow feed crops.

While we are all too aware of zoonotic diseases such as Zika, Ebola, avian flu and swine flu, another 1.7 million “undiscovered” viruses are lurking out there, and as many as 850,000 could pose a risk to humans.

The report, by a UN organisation called the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), warns that the continued razing of rainforests for pasture and ploughing up of diverse habitats for farmland is in danger of unleashing new pandemics. The answer, IPBES says, is to reduce “consumption, globalised agricultural expansion and trade” related to the meat industry.

Drawing the dots between the coronavirus pandemic and meat eating is a big step. The IPBES report not only advises that bats, pangolins and the like be taken off the global menu (Covid-19 “most probably has its ecological reservoir in bats”, according to the World Health Organisation, and the first human cases were reported in Wuhan, China) but curtailing the intensive farming of domestic livestock, which relies on deforestation. Both can be a locus for pathogens that leap from animals to humans.

Its ideas for helping encourage that shift away from industrialised meat include new calls for a tax on the animal products we buy, the livestock we raise or on other types of what it calls “high-pandemic-risk production”. As well as stamping out the grim spectacle of the “wet market”, that means also drawing a bead on the butcher shop and supermarket aisle.

The risk of another pandemic “could be significantly lowered by promoting responsible consumption and reducing unsustainable consumption of commodities from emerging disease hotspots, and of wildlife and wildlife-derived products, as well as by reducing excessive consumption of meat from livestock production”, the report adds.

“There is no great mystery about the cause of the Covid-19 pandemic – or of any modern pandemic”, said Dr Peter Daszak, the lead author of the report and the president of EcoHealth Alliance, a global nonprofit that leads scientific research into the connections between animals, humans and environmental health. “The same human activities that drive climate change and biodiversity loss also drive pandemic risk through their impacts on our environment.”

Read the report

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