The authorities in Wuhan, the epicentre of the Covid-19 outbreak, have officially banned eating, hunting and breeding wild animals. The new policy will stay in place for five years, according to a notice released by the Wuhan government.
The origins of the pandemic are still being investigated but the suspected source is the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan, which included a live animal section selling many species of wild and farmed animals.
Generally, scientists agree that the most plausible explanation is that the virus jumped from an animal to a human in a zoonotic manner. (Three out of four new or emerging infectious diseases in people come from animals, including HIV, Ebola, influenza, MERS and SARS.)
The move in Wuhan comes amid mounting pressure for China to crack down on the illegal wildlife trade blamed by many for the pandemic, but whilst the emergence of Covid-19 has been linked to eating wildlife, it shows strong parallels with other viruses which have emerged from a different route – industrial farming – such as highly pathogenic strains of Avian Influenza and Swine Flu. The effects of those diseases have been devastating; and they are believed to have come from keeping living, breathing, sentient creatures, chickens and pigs, in the most unnatural conditions – caged, crammed and confined on intensive farms.
Yet there is no mention of any action to be taken, from any country, to limit the risk of zoonotic disease from factory farmed animals.
Intensive factory farm buildings are a serious public health risk. They provide the perfect breeding ground for disease. Keeping too many animals in too small a space, often in darkened, filthy and crowded conditions, provides a virus like Avian Influenza the conditions it needs to thrive and spread rapidly. As it goes through the flock, replicating madly, mutations can occur in the virus’s DNA, causing new and more deadly strains to emerge. The fact that pigs, humans and birds can exchange flu viruses or elements of viruses undeniably raises the nightmare prospect of a highly contagious and lethal flu strain which starts in animals and transfers to people.
New and devastating disease outbreaks have become known as “black swan” events, a metaphor for surprise catastrophes. To avoid nightmares like coronavirus being repeated in the future, it is essential to identify likely sources of black swan events.
One of those is factory farming. Factory farming is not only the biggest cause of animal cruelty on the planet, but a major driver of wildlife declines worldwide. The two are inextricably linked. At the same time, factory farming fuels the global appetite for more meat and animal products, with more forests cleared for farmland, encroaching on wild lands and their own viruses.
What has been extraordinary about the response to Covid-19 is how far and fast governments have moved to protect people, introducing life-changing measures across the board normally associated with wartime. It shows how quickly changes can be made. In the face of an imminent threat, leaders have stepped up. Yet the action of governments worldwide on Covid-19 stands in stark contrast to efforts on factory farming, climate change and the collapse of nature.
Without urgent action to address the unsustainability of our food system, the climate crisis and the collapse of nature, we could find ourselves fighting another “invisible enemy”, only this time in a war without end.
The coronavirus pandemic has shown how fragile society really is; and that for the sake of a decent tomorrow, appropriate measures are needed today.
Philip Lymbery is the CEO of Compassion in World Farming