An article appeared in The New York Times last week in response to the growing threat of the new coronavirus strain. The piece quotes conservationists who say we should consider a total ban on the wildlife trade in order to stop future pandemics. It’s believed that the latest coronavirus outbreak began at a wildlife market in Wuhan, China. Experts are now pointing to the pangolin, an endangered animal – and also the most trafficked animal in the world – as the likely source.
This is not the first time a coronavirus strain has crossed the species barrier and affected the human population. Most of us recall the SARS epidemic of 2003 – that was also a coronavirus which jumped to humans from an animal called the palm civet. And then there was the MERS epidemic of 2015 that originated in the Middle East – and came from camels.
Zoonotic diseases, or diseases that can leap from animals to humans, are not uncommon and they don’t always come from exotic animals. Many come from the animals we regularly farm and eat. The 1918 influenza pandemic, or the Spanish flu, infected more than 500 million people and killed between 40-50 million worldwide. It is now commonly believed that the disease originated in birds. When the H1N1 virus, the same strain that caused the Spanish flu, showed up again in 2009, it first emerged in pigs. Tuberculosis, mad cow disease, and pig MRSA also came from animals exploited for food.
And the situation is only getting worse. Because, thanks to the advent of factory farming, billions of animals are routinely kept in crammed, filthy conditions that cause them extreme stress. This abhorrent practice creates the perfect breeding ground for new diseases to thrive. Add to that the fact that we regularly feed factory farmed animals low-doses of antibiotics and we really have a recipe for disaster.
Scientists have been cautioning us about the dangers of all this for years, but their warnings have gone unheeded. And now it seems the proverbial chickens might just be coming home to roost.
The fact is the way we currently treat the animals we exploit and slaughter for food is not only cruel and unethical, it’s also really, really stupid. Nearly 80 percent of all antibiotics produced in the United States today are actually fed to animals on factory farms. So, behind every piece of bacon we fry up or chicken breast we grill lies the potential for the next great health crisis – or an illness such as antibiotic-resistant salmonella that can kill you.
Banning the wildlife trade is an excellent start to try and safeguard the health of Earth’s human population, but if we’re really serious about stopping zoonotic diseases from becoming global pandemics, we need to rethink what we eat and how we treat the animals we exploit for food. The clock is ticking and soon we’ll be out of time.