“We can no longer consider the health of humans separately from the health of the planet”
This was just one conclusion that came out of the meeting of the Intergroup on the Welfare and Conservation of Animals this morning, which was entitled ‘The COVID-19 pandemic: zoonotic diseases from wildlife trade and consumption and intensive livestock farming’.
Looking in detail at each of two important factors of the COVID-19 crisis, the relationship of zoonotic diseases with wildlife on the one hand and farming on the other, the issue in both cases boils down to the same conclusions: that human activity is the root cause of our current situation - as it is with climate change - and that an entire, planet-wide transformative change in human attitude is needed about both these drivers.
The meeting was held online, which opened up the opportunity for several outstanding academic experts to contribute their knowledge.
Kicking off the ‘zoonotic diseases from wildlife trade and consumption’ half of the meeting, Prof Herwig Leirs from the Evolutionary Ecology Group at the University of Antwerp gave an overview of what zoonoses are, how they jump to humans, and where they come from. Humans disturbing habitats, coming into contact with wildlife, eating and trading animals, international mobility, and dense human populations are just some contributing factors.
Prof Peter Li, Associate Professor at the University of Houston-Downtown, was next. He described the role of wet markets in Chinese society, explaining that the presence of wildlife in such markets is a relatively new phenomenon in China; intensive farming is also new. Wet market animals are slaughtered for spectacle and the meat goes to restaurants - but research about what is ‘traditional’ food in China found just 3.3% of people with meat from wildlife in their fridges, and even then they had it ‘only rarely’. The wildlife industry’s economic importance is inflated by the industrial lobby, he said, and it cannot be improved or made cleaner. It is inhumane, and a threat to human health.
Wrapping up the wildlife talks, Prof Dr Frank Pasmans from Ghent University gave an overview about the fungal disease that is mortally threatening 500 species of amphibian worldwide, which has stemmed from the trade in exotic pets.
The second half of the meeting focused on zoonotic diseases from intensive livestock farming, with Prof Roel Coutinho from the University of Amsterdam describing the outbreak of Q fever from goat farms in the Netherlands in the early 2000s. The number of goats farmed in the country leapt from 7415 in the 1980s to 350,000 in 2007, and people living near the farms also became infected, as well as showing a 50% increase in pneumonia. “This is what happens when you have such high numbers of intensively farmed animals alongside in a densely populated country ,” he said. “This would not have happened in Nova Scotia or New Zealand.”
Next, Prof Thijs Kuiken of the Erasmus University Medical Center pointed out that outbreaks of disease such as COVID-19 or SARS have increased in the last 30 years because of three factors: more animals being farmed, increased trade and transport of animals, and human movement into uninhabited regions. Standard measures to tackle the issue currently include improved surveillance and diagnostics on farms, he said, but to stop future outbreaks we need to address the underlying cause. “We need people to think again about their basic values, and realise that they are an integral part of nature, and that animals deserve an equal amount of concern,” he said. He added that two events had given him some hope after preaching this for 15 years to no avail. The first was climate change awareness, such as the evidence that the global food supply chain contributes to a quarter of GHG emissions and a third of land acidification. The second was the May 2019 agreement of 132 governments with an Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Service (IPBES) conclusion that “goals for conserving and sustainably using nature and achieving sustainability cannot be met by current trajectories, and [...] may only be achieved through transformative changes: a fundamental, system-wide reorganization”.
The final speaker was Philip Elders, Youth Delegate of the World Health Organisation for the Netherlands. He expressed disappointment that humanity had done nothing to prevent the COVID-19 crisis before it happened, despite ample warning, and, like Kuiken, stressed the importance of taking a planetary approach to the problem.
The discussion among MEPs and the experts after the sessions saw Li advising that COVID-19 not be politicised, as it is not the fault of one particular country or specific people, and that politicisation could antagonise China’s efforts to shut down markets or ban consumption. Coutinho agreed that there is too much emphasis on China, given the wildlife markets and the bushmeat consumption in other places such as Africa, and even Europe. He stressed that people throughout the world need to understand that they need to pay more for meat if they want to consume it so that farmers can take the measures needed to move away from intensive farming practices.
MEPs stressed that more visibility is needed for scientists during the COVID-19 crisis, such as the meeting’s speakers, to avoid that the debate becomes polarised or that sectors are penalised. In turn, Kuiken had a request for MEPs: that they recognize the multiple benefits of reducing the number of farmed animals, support measures to change this, and remove perverse incentives that maintain the status quo. This was echoed by Elders, who pointed out that the Green Deal’s Farm-to-Fork strategy can help with a transformative change towards more plant-based diets. Several speakers and MEPs alike highlighted the need for the adoption of an EU Positive List to regulate the exotic pet trade and thus protect human and animal health and biodiversity.
“The poorly regulated trade in wild animals has serious consequences we can no longer ignore, and it is clear that preventing future pandemics also requires a totally new approach to animal farming,” said President of the Intergroup Anja Hazenkamp MEP, summing up. “The EU Biodiversity Strategy to 2030 and the Farm to Fork strategy offer a unique opportunity to set a brand new course, and we should seize it.”
She suggested that MEPs get together to send a letter to the Commission outlining the points of this meeting and how they should be taken into account in the drafting of the strategies.
The recording and presentations of the meeting are available here.