On February 9th, 2021, from a closely-guarded conference room in Wuhan, the World Health Organisation (WHO) announced that it was ‘extremely unlikely’ that SARS-CoV-2 escaped from a Chinese laboratory. While this announcement allays certain fears, particularly concerning China’s role as a threat to global biosecurity, it deepens others. Institutions focussed on identifying biosecurity weak spots, such as the Future of Humanity Institute in Oxford, typically centre their research on the threat of ‘bio-leaks’ and ‘bio-engineered’ pathogens. In doing so, they overlook what COVID-19 has so clearly demonstrated: that international biosecurity is compromised first and foremost by the persistent outbreak of zoonotic diseases. The cause of these outbreaks? The perilous use and abuse of animals. Of course, the humble bat, chicken, or pig does not capture the imagination like a malevolent scientist intent on destabilising the world order with a lab-grown germ. And yet, while humanity’s fears are trained at this imagined actor, the truth is both more mundane and horrifying. It is the global system of food production that risks unleashing the next pandemic.
Despite an intermediate vector, likely a pangolin or bamboo rat, scientific authorities generally accept that the origin of the COVID-19 was a bat. In any case, the animal that first transmitted COVID-19 to people was being used for human consumption. Furthermore, it was probably slaughtered in a Wuhan ‘wet market’ (where live and dead animals are sold simultaneously). This has rightly led to renewed pressure on the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to close wet markets and, in particular, those that handle wild animals (including the unfortunate antagonists in this story, the bat and pangolin or rat). However, while this international pressure ought to be supported, there is a certain irony in the disgust felt by the ‘West’ towards the origin story of COVID-19. From the perspective of bio-security, the wet-markets of Asia are not wholly different from the factory farms of Europe or North America. Both are packed with distressed, dehydrated, malnourished, and immunocompromised animals. This means that, if one chicken, pig, or bat carries a novel pathogen, then the disease can quickly spread throughout the wet market or factory farm, firstly amongst animal hosts, then humans. In short, both factory farms and wet markets provide perfect environments for the selection, amplification, and mutation of novel viruses.
Two further areas of unfortunate hypocrisy must also be exposed. Firstly, unbeknownst to the casual observer, wet markets can still be found outside of Asia. Indeed, according to the charity People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), over eighty wet markets operate in New York City alone. Secondly, while some label the issue of pandemics and food production as an Asia- specific problem on the basis that, in the ‘West’, we do not consume wild animals, this defence does not hold up against an even mildly functioning memory. Although comparisons are generally drawn between COVID-19 and SARS—which also originated in a Chinese wet market—the most recent global pandemic prior to COVID-19 was the Swine Flu outbreak in 2009, which originated, as its name suggests, in pigs. Furthermore, Swine Flu’s geographical origin was La Gloria, Mexico, an area in which there is a ‘major concentration of industrial pig farms’. Simply put, the zoonotic pandemic threat does not come exclusively from wild animals, nor does it come solely from the ignoble practices of wet-markets.
The immense danger of a food system based increasingly upon factory farming is a global problem that demands global solutions. Calls for China to shut its wet markets are somewhat hypocritical. More fundamentally, they are insufficient to deal with the task at hand, which encompasses not only the risk of further zoonotic pandemics but also rife with antibiotic resistance and complete climate breakdown (to which intensive animal agriculture is a primary contributor). Nearly thirty years have passed since the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development (1992) called on states to “reduce and eliminate unsustainable patterns of production and consumption”. And yet, the political will to identify intensive animal agriculture as perhaps the primary example of this has been lacking.
This lack of will is analogous to that in the field of climate change, which, like pandemic-risk, can be seen as having possibly existential ramifications. Despite the well-established connection between intensive animal agriculture and climate change, the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement mandates that measures to curb greenhouse gas emissions must not ‘threaten food production’. This logic is, of course, perverse: it is the current system of food production that poses the threat.
Recent history shows this clearly: growing global demand for meat will require ever-more intensive animal agriculture, thus raising the odds of yet another zoonotic pandemic. Preventing this probability requires bold political leaders who will close the doors to factory farms and wet-markets for good. In this vein, the UN’s ‘Food Systems Summit’ scheduled for September offers some hope. If successful, it will create some movement towards this end. However, this issue is too pressing to wait for leadership from governments and International Organisations. All concerned citizens must become conscious consumers and vocal activists. Animals products, or at least those produced in factory farms, must be rejected, and constituents must pressure politicians to disown a system of production that is both viciously cruel and highly dangerous. Grassroots movements must challenge business as usual before business as usual unleashes the next pandemic.
Edited by Philipp Harnik; Photo credit: Jo-Anne McArthur, Unsplash