Philip Lymbery is the Chief Executive of Compassion in World Farming and Chair of Eurogroup for Animals. He is author of the books Farmageddon and Dead Zone. Here he describes how Covid-19 demonstrates why we must ban wildlife markets and improve farming standards if we are to prevent the next pandemic or Farmageddon.
In early April whilst most of the world was coming to terms with the horror of the Covid-19 pandemic, Compassion in World Farming, along with some 200 other organisations, signed an Open Letter to the World Health Organisation (WHO).
We called upon the WHO to take actions including recommending that governments worldwide institute a permanent ban on live wildlife markets, drawing an unequivocal link between these markets and their proven threats to human health.
Covid-19 is just the latest example of an infection that has made the leap from animals into humans – and when infections do this, they can be particularly deadly. Three out of four new or emerging infectious diseases in people came from wild animals, including Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), Ebola, MERS and HIV.
The risk of transmission of new and deadly diseases is heightened by the ways in which wild animals are typically farmed or captured and exacerbated by the inhumane and unhygienic conditions in wildlife markets, where close proximity provides the perfect opportunity for pathogens to spread between humans and animals.
Whilst our call for action has received widespread support, it has also received criticism on the grounds that wildlife trade bans might risk increased illegal trade, increased involvement of organised crime and be detrimental to livelihoods. Frankly I’m astonished by such arguments. I could not agree more with Jill Robinson, Founder and Chief Executive of Animals Asia, who has spent over three decades investigating the wildlife trade and wildlife markets. Responding to criticisms of the Open Letter to WHO, Jill commented, “The trade is already controlled by organised crime. Far better to spend millions or even billions on defeating and ending this crime and ending the trade now, rather than the trillions in the next pandemic caused by the very same dysfunctional and largely corrupt components of the wildlife trade”.
During my own investigations around the world, and particularly in Asia, I’ve seen the suffering of wild animals, caged and confined in markets. I’ve been forced to watch as they’ve been treated with no more regard than would be afforded vegetables or tin cans.
In the 1970s Peter Roberts, Compassion in World Farming’s founder, feared that by adopting a violent attitude to Nature, man would find himself “threatened on all sides by disease, hunger and pests”. Today the world faces an onslaught of health issues, often linked to the abuse of animals, both wild and farmed. The Coronavirus tragedy, like SARS before it, is demonstrating to the world how treating animals as mere commodities is like playing Russian Roulette with peoples’ health.
Reconnecting with our Humanity to Animals
A key component of reducing the risk of devastating diseases tomorrow is to reconnect with our humanity for animals today. Our cruel abuse of animals, both wild and farmed, is damaging our health and will continue do to so unless we fundamentally reassess our relationship with animals and recognise our ethical obligations to treat them with respect.
As a first step, I’d like to see governments around the world acting to ban wildlife markets and instituting the other measures called for in the Open Letter to WHO, as a matter of urgency. There are many examples of successful bans that have been combined with measures that address cultural practices and provide alternative livelihoods for those in need, for example the ban on dancing bears in India.
As we move away from wet markets and the use of wildlife for food, some will call for these food sources to be replaced by factory farming. But this too is a hot house of disease linked to the emergence of deadly diseases, including highly pathogenic Avian and Swine flu strains. Indeed, I fear that factory farms may be the source of the next global pandemic.
Everyday we understand more and more how the health of animals and people are closely intertwined. As Albert Schweitzer once said, “Until he extends the circle of his compassion to all living things, Man will not himself find peace”.
Factory Farming – A Health Crisis for the Future
With the world gripped by the worst pandemic in a lifetime, questions are starting to be asked about how our treatment of animals is storing up health crises for the future.
Whilst Covid-19 is thought to have its roots in wildlife, future pandemics may be triggered by the way animals are factory farmed. The sad fact is that factory farming is not only extremely cruel, but also a major public health risk. Keeping animals packed into cages and confined provides the perfect breeding ground for disease. Factory farms are a ticking time-bomb for future pandemics.
Hundreds of coronaviruses are in circulation, most of them amongst animals including pigs, camels, bats and cats. Sometimes those viruses jump to humans – called a spill-over event – and can cause disease. When SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) emerged from China in 2002, it swept across the globe – largely through air travel – causing deadly illness. More than 8,000 people fell ill and 774 died, numbers surpassed by Covid-19 within two months. The 2009 Swine flu pandemic was linked to the factory farming of pigs in Mexico. Within a year, according to the WHO, the virus was linked to over 18,000 deaths worldwide.
Three out of four new or emerging infectious diseases in people come from animals, including Swine flu, Avian flu, HIV, Ebola, MERS and SARS. They are known as zoonotic diseases. The Wuhan coronavirus is the latest example of an infection that has jumped from animals into humans – and when infections do this, they can be particularly deadly.
Breeding Grounds for New Pandemics
The caged, crammed and confined conditions of factory farms provide the ideal breeding ground for new and more deadly strains of virus. Swine flu and highly pathogenic Avian flu being just two examples. When faced with a disease crisis involving farmed animals, the industry’s reaction is to fall back on locking animals inside. After all, if they are confined indoors then they are surely protected in ‘biosecure’ units that can keep out vectors of disease transmission.
What is overlooked is that those very same ‘biosecure’ intensive farm buildings are the cause of the problem. The perfect breeding ground for disease. The hothouse where new and more dangerous strains of disease emerge, often with devastating consequences for both animals and people alike.
Playing Russian Roulette with our Earth
Keeping too many animals in too small a space, often in darkened, filthy and crowded conditions, provides viruses like Avian Influenza the conditions they need to spread rapidly. As they replicate at speed, mutations can occur in the virus’ DNA, causing new strains to emerge. This allows new and deadlier strains to form and spread quickly. So, contrary to the myth levied by the industrial farming industry, keeping animals indoors simply increases the risk of disease.
The coronavirus tragedy, and Swine flu a decade earlier, have shown that treating animals as mere commodities – be they domesticated or wild – is like playing Russian Roulette with peoples’ health.
One Health, One Welfare
What I’ve come to see is that a key component of reducing the risk of devastating diseases tomorrow, is to reconnect with our humanity for animals today. The coronavirus epidemic is not a warning, but a potent demonstration of what is going wrong, what life could become. A global lifestyle that just months ago seemed invincible, suddenly seems extremely fragile. The way that the wellbeing of people, animals and the environment are interlinked have become increasingly clear. Factory farming is a public health disaster waiting to happen and it is clear that future generations will be well served by its abandonment.
Your help is vital. Thank you for your support in our movement to end factory farming. For animals, people and the planet, let’s take action today.