A new report from the United Nations focuses on zoonotic epidemics, which include the current COVID-19 coronavirus. The authors warn that while the world is treating the health and economic symptoms of this coronavirus pandemic, governments are ignoring the root causes: the destruction of nature and the increasing demand for meat. For this reason, similar pandemics cannot be expected to recur in the future.
The report, entitled “Preventing the next pandemic”, is a collaboration between the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI). It identifies seven trends linked to the rising incidence of zoonotic diseases, including increased demand for animal protein, the growth of intensive and unsustainable agriculture, the exploitation of wildlife, and the climate crisis.
Risks: Deforestation and crowded animals
The primary risks to future pandemics are tropical deforestation and large-scale factory farming of animals, specifically pigs and chickens raised side by side, according to ecologist Thomas Gillespie, a reviewer of the report. “We are at a crisis point. If we don’t fundamentally change our attitudes towards the natural world, it’s going to get much, much worse. What we are experiencing now will seem mild by comparison,” Gillespie warns. “The current crisis only underscores the fact that we must look for alternative ways to feed the world’s growing population, and do so with respect for the health of people and the planet,” said Martin Ranninger, president of the Czech Vegan Society.
Consequences: Huge monetary losses and millions dead
About two million people die each year from zoonotic diseases, mostly in low- and middle-income countries. In the past two decades alone, zoonotic diseases have caused economic losses of more than $100 billion, not including the cost of the COVID-19 pandemic, which is expected to reach $9 trillion in the next few years.
“The current crisis is an opportunity to set new rules for fair globalization: ensuring the rights and dignity of every individual, living in harmony with nature, and respect for future generations. Competition for resources must be replaced by cooperation. One of the basic prerequisites is to stop the exploitation of wild nature, return to sustainable agricultural production methods and prioritize the protection of the health of ecosystems and people,” says Michal Broža, Head of the UN Information Office for the Czech Republic.
The increasing political dimension of agriculture
In its recently published “From Farmer to Consumer” strategy, part of the new Green Deal for Europe, the European Commission outlined financial support of at least €100 billion for the transition to a more sustainable agriculture. According to the strategy, €10 billion is to be spent on the bio-economy and food, with a key area of research being “increasing the availability and sources of alternative proteins such as plant, cultured or marine proteins and insect-based proteins and other meat substitutes.”
In its Farmer to Consumer Strategy, the Commission states that livestock farming is a major contributor to climate change, accounting for almost 70% of all greenhouse gas emissions in Europe. However, the over-consumption of livestock products also has a health impact on society as a whole, with significant costs for healthcare. In 2017, it is estimated that more than 950 000 deaths in the EU were linked to unhealthy diets. A healthy plant-based diet reduces the risk of life-threatening diseases and reduces the environmental impact on our food system.