Humane Aware Blog
Covid-19: An Animal Welfare Wake-Up Call
March 31st 2020
We are living through an unprecedented global emergency with the pandemic spread of novel coronavirus Covid-19. The impact on public health, the economy and our very way of life is still yet to be fully comprehended and, with lockdown in the UK set to continue for weeks, it looks like the immediate future is one of yet more uncertainty. But, once the long path to recovery finally begins, what lessons should we be learning from this crisis?
It is widely accepted that Covid-19 emerged from a live animal market in Wuhan, China, in late 2019. A recent study of its genetic sequence reveals that the virus is the product of natural evolution and likely originated in bats and was transmitted to humans via an intermediate animal host (Nature, 2020). Genetic analysis of Covid-19 suggests that the intermediate animal host was likely a pangolin, a wild animal considered a delicacy in some Asian countries and illegally traded for its meat and scales.
Wildlife markets, where live animals of many different species are often stacked together in extremely low welfare conditions, provide a highly conducive environment for the spread of disease. Indeed, the connection between the trade of wild animals and the Covid-19 outbreak prompted the Chinese government, on 24th February 2020, to enact a ban on the illegal trade of wild animals and their consumption. While this is a step forward for the protection of wild animals and the risks to human health that their trade and consumption presents, it is not without loopholes (WCS, 2020).
However, regulating the consumption of wild animals is only part of the solution. Covid-19 is not the first zoonotic disease to have emerged from our food system, nor will it be the last if current industrial meat production practices continue. Highly pathogenic outbreaks of avian flu and swine flu have emerged, not from wild animals, but from factory farmed meat production. The poor welfare standards synonymous with factory farming – often thousands of animals crammed together in confined spaces –increases the risk of the emergence of novel infectious disease. Moreover, industrial-scale production of meat exposes agricultural workers to animals in their thousands or tens of thousands, increasing the risk of disease transmission to humans (Pew Commission, 2008).
Another consequence of a food system that relies so heavily on meat is that more and more habitat is being destroyed and converted for animal agriculture. This presents existential threats to humanity not only in the form of climate-change, but also from the perspective of public health. With humans increasingly encroaching on previously undisturbed ecosystems, the possibility for animal-human interaction (and therefore zoonoses) is also increasing (The Guardian, 2020).
While modern, industrial farming practices have increased the productivity of animal agriculture and reduced the cost of meat for consumers, it has come at the expense of animal welfare, public health and the environment. With Covid-19 putting the whole world on hold, maybe now is the time to consider what the future of food production should look like. Reducing our reliance on meat and shifting away from intensive animal agriculture would be a step in the right direction for animal welfare, the ecosystem and human health.