As countries seek to contain the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, a lot of attention has focused on the wet markets in China that allegedly spawned the virus.
While it’s necessary to better regulate wildlife trade and crack down on its illegal counterpart, experts say countries also have to take steps to rein in factory farming and promote more sustainable forms of food production.
Because it’s not wet markets — most of which are essentially farmer’s markets — that are the major source of the pathogens that go on to create health crises for humans; it’s factory farming, the industrial processing of huge numbers of animals, that poses the biggest health risk, according to the Independent.
Factory farming has actually created the majority of pathogens that have gone on to infect humans, the Independent reports.
Rob Wallace, an evolutionary biologist at the Agroecology and Rural Economics Research Corps, told Vox that factory farms offer the perfect opportunity for "the most dangerous pathogens possible" to select hosts.
"If you’re a pathogen in a host," Wallace said. "You don’t want to kill your host too fast before you can get into the next host — otherwise you’re cutting off your own line of transmission ... But if you get into a barn with 15,000 turkeys or 250,000 layer chickens, you can just burn right through [hosts]."
As demand for meat products increases around the world, it’s likely that the industrial model of animal processing that currently dominates in countries like the United States will expand in low-income countries.
And that could lead to far more pathogens emerging and spreading to humans.
Factory farming is ideal for the spread of pathogens, according to Vox. Industrially processed animals are often kept in tight and unsanitary quarters that can lead to diseases, injuries, and sores. These animals are often fed poor diets that lower their immune systems and pumped full of antibiotics. To make matters worse, when animal waste from these facilities is disposed of, it often contaminates local environments.
Furthermore, livestock production leads to deforestation and the conversion of biodiverse landscapes into barren monoculture zones for livestock feed. As wild animals that live in these environments get displaced, they often bring new pathogens into human environments.
"In the space of just a few decades, a combination of unrestrained corporate power, misguided agricultural policy, and inadequate environmental and public health regulations — all of which can be remedied if we so choose — has led to a system of intensive, industrialized food production that poses serious risks to both animal and human health," Matt Wellington, a director of campaigns at the United States Public Interest Research Group, recently wrote.
Instead of expanding meat production, countries can prioritize agriculture that provides more nutritional benefits for humans and can be grown in harmony with surrounding environments, while lowering the risk of pandemic-level pathogens emerging.
Taking a fresh look at animal production also involves considering its effect on world hunger, which could dramatically increase as a result of COVID-19.
The Global Nutrition Report 2020 recently said that countries have to transform global food production to ensure people have more nutritious diets, food inequality is reduced, and the global environment is protected.
Organizations like the United Nations’ International Fund for Agricultural Development are helping smallholder farmers enact more sustainable practices to be more resilient in times of crisis and improve food supply chains overall.
How countries adapt their food systems amid the pandemic will influence the likelihood of future pandemics.
"Our short-term priority is the development of a vaccine for COVID-19," a group of food, health, and political researchers recently wrote in the Guardian. "But we must also start thinking about more radical measures to address the roots of this crisis. We need a more resilient food system that puts less stress on the planet and on public health."