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Photo: Milos Bicanski / We Animals Media
The recent COVID-19 pandemic claimed the lives of millions. Every country around the world was impacted. Many of us who lived lost loved ones or still suffer from ongoing effects ourselves. Though the signs of the pandemic are fading—shuttered businesses, masked faces, closed schools—the disease continues to upend lives.
Some of the factors that make us vulnerable—such as age or pre-existing conditions—are outside our control, but there are steps that all of us can take to help keep safe from COVID and future outbreaks of other diseases. Beyond any steps we take as individuals we must also advocate for societal and policy shifts that will help to reduce the risk of another pandemic emerging and wreaking havoc on our communities. Taking preventative steps now will be far more effective than being forced to react when the next pandemic occurs.
There are several steps that we can take as communities, locally and globally, to reduce the likelihood of another pandemic. One of the most crucial facets of society that must be reimagined is the way we produce our food, specifically the way that we raise animals that are used for food.
The United Nations has outlined several risk factors that increase the likelihood of another large-scale outbreak of a zoonotic disease, that is, one which is spread from animals to people. The risk factors include an increase in demand for animal protein, intensive and unsustainable farming, increased use and exploitation of wildlife, and the climate crisis. All of these factors drive and influence one another. In order to address one of them effectively, they must all be taken into consideration and addressed simultaneously.
One hard lesson we learned from COVID is that we cannot rely on managing a pandemic once it has already started. Instead, we must take steps to prevent the outbreak of future pandemics by addressing the factors—such as the intensive farming of animals—that place us most at risk.
The transmission of zoonotic diseases from farmed animals to people is called farmed animal spillover. Because of the way that we farm animals, the risk of a pandemic originating from a factory farm is high. The animals that are housed on factory farms are overwhelmingly genetically uniform, immunocompromised, and regularly drugged. In short, these farms provide the ideal situation for a disease to take hold and spread swiftly through the population of animals until it is able to mutate and make the jump to people. Though the factory farming of any animal places us at serious risk for another pandemic, perhaps the most severe risk comes from chickens. There is currently a massive global outbreak of avian influenza affecting poultry populations in many countries, and such widespread infection among both farmed and wild birds provides greater opportunities for a jump into humans.
Leading research institutions are recognizing the severity of the situation and the need for a shift away from intensive animal farming as a means of producing food. National institutions including the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the White House also recognize the risk that zoonotic diseases pose when it comes to the emergence of the next global pandemic. Now is the time to urge governments and international bodies to take action for a future without factory farms, for the benefit of literally every person on Earth. As with many other risk factors for the next pandemic, we can also limit farmed animal spillover by reducing or eliminating our consumption of animal products.
Estimates suggest that the world has lost a full third of its forest. In just the last century, the world has lost the same amount of forest as it did in the 9,000 preceding years, a trend that has been largely driven by agricultural expansion. In the Amazon rainforest, one of the most biodiverse places on earth, 80 percent of deforestation occurs to create pastures for cattle ranching.1 As this trend continues, ecologists have noted that while many species are going extinct, those most likely to survive the destruction and move into closer quarters with humans are those most likely to carry zoonotic diseases such as rats and bats. We can all help to reduce deforestation by limiting our consumption of farmed animal products that drive the demand for agricultural land.
Spillover from the wildlife trade is another form of zoonotic disease transmission. This is strongly suspected as the origin of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that was behind the COVID pandemic. Presently some of the most urgent risk factors associated with the wildlife trade are unhygienic marketplaces that sell (often illegally captured) wildlife, a lack of monitoring and regulation of the legal wildlife trade, lack of concerted action against illegal wildlife traders, and the destruction of native habitats.2
If we catch an emerging pandemic early and take decisive action to control it, then the severity of the pandemic is likely to be reduced. In the case of COVID-19, the first laboratory-confirmed case in the United States was discovered in January 2019. Just a few short days later, Wuhan, China was placed under lockdown as the disease demonstrated how dangerous it could be if allowed to spread. Even as the CDC continued to confirm additional cases and other countries began taking decisive action, the U.S. waited, allowing the disease to take hold. It wasn’t until two months later in March that a nationwide emergency was declared.
Aside from preventive measures that must be taken at a policy level, there are also individual actions that we can take to help keep ourselves healthy and, if we do get sick, prevent the spread of disease within our communities. In the case of disease control, it is always best to follow the guidance put forward by professionals and scientists, such as those working within the CDC.
More than 99 percent of animal products come from factory farms, which are a breeding ground for pandemics. To reduce pandemic risk, eat as few animal products as possible, ideally none. The less demand for animal products, the fewer animals are farmed, and the less we face the risk of the zoonotic spillover events that lead to pandemics. One of the best things you can do on an everyday basis to prevent the next pandemic is to change your diet.
If you do plan to eat animal products but also want to reduce pandemic risk, make the shift to highest welfare animal products. Many of these products come from animals who are provided outdoor access with constant cycling of fresh air, are not immunocompromised, and are not routinely administered antibiotics, all of which significantly reduces the risk they pose to public health. Learn more about animal product certifications and labels so that you can find animal products in keeping with your values.
An epidemic is a disease that impacts a number of people across a community, population, or region. A pandemic is an epidemic that has spread to a global scale. Preventive measures must be taken to keep epidemics from spreading into pandemics, including many of the same measures taken to prevent the spread of a pandemic.
COVID-19 provided a jarring awakening to the seriousness of zoonotic diseases and the potential severity of pandemics. The disease impacted—and continues to impact—every country on the planet and claimed the lives of millions. There are steps that we can take both as individuals and on a policy level to prevent another tragedy of similar scale, and those steps should include reforming the way that we raise animals for food.
Marin Elisabeth Skidmore et al., “Cattle Ranchers and Deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon: Production, Location, and Policies,” Global Environmental Change 68 (May, 2021), https://doi.org/10.1016/j.gloenvcha.2021.102280.
Vanda Felbab-Brown, “Preventing Pandemics through Biodiversity Conservation and Smart Wildlife Trade Regulation” (Brookings, January 2021), https://www.brookings.edu/research/preventing-pandemics-through-biodiversity-conservation-and-smart-wildlife-trade-regulation/.