Coronavirus – a man-made crisis?

As we humans exploit new areas of the natural world, we disturb the viruses they contain, allowing them to transmit to human populations. In this way deforestation and habitat destruction enable pandemics like Covid-19 to develop. Coronavirus is a zoonotic virus, meaning that it was transmitted from animals to humans. 60% of all new diseases are zoonotic. The list includes SARS, MERS, Ebola, H1N1 and HIV. Infectious diseases like Covid-19 are emerging more rapidly than ever before, and one reason is likely to be our treatment of the natural world. As we destroy many of the natural resources and habitats we rely on, we push further and further into unknown ecosystems. Wild meat hunters are forced deeper into forests. The animals they kill are more likely to host unknown viruses that humans have not yet been exposed to.

Ecosystem disruption.

But our disturbance is not just in the form of hunting: we log forests for wood or agricultural land, mine for minerals and fossil fuels, and destroy habitats for industries linked to our consumption. Each increases our contact with previously undisturbed animal populations. At the same time, these wild animals are pushed closer to human settlements as their habitats are destroyed, bringing viruses with them.

David Quammen, explains in the New York Times: “We invade tropical forests and other wild habitats, which harbour so many species of animals and plants – and within those creatures, so many unknown viruses.  We cut the trees; we kill the animals or cage them and send them to markets. We disrupt ecosystems, and we shake viruses loose from their natural hosts. When that happens, they need a new host. Often, we are it.”

The Coronavirus Pandemic.

Addressing COVID-19, then, is not only about mutual aid networks, food banks, NHS staff and carers, and the other amazing community and health responses we’re seeing. Our relationship with the environment also needs to change if we want to avoid exposure to many further viruses of this kind.

Richard Ostfeld, a senior scientist at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies in New York says: “There’s misapprehension among some scientists and the public that natural ecosystems are the source of threats to us… It’s a mistake. Nature poses threats, it is true, but it’s human activities that do the real damage. The health risks in a natural environment can be made much worse when we interfere with it.”

Farming destroying habitats.

Livestock is the world’s largest user of land resources. As our demand for meat grows and grows, larger and larger areas of the natural world are being taken over for meat production. In countries like Brazil, forest is cleared for beef farming or to grow soya and other crops for animal feed. Habitats are destroyed, communities that rely on these forests are pushed further into unknown ecosystems, and humans come into contact with new animal populations and the viruses they carry.

Choosing a plant-based diet can reduce our destruction of the natural world, and in this way reduce our risk of exposure to viruses like COVID-19. Animal agriculture is a very inefficient use of land, meaning that we need a disproportionate amount to meet our nutritional requirements. Some experts estimate that if we all went vegan, we could reduce land use for agriculture by 75% – allowing more natural habitats to remain undisturbed, and agricultural land to be re-wilded.

Factory Farming – cruelty & disease.

The three pandemics that have emerged since 2000, Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in 2003, swine flu (H1N1) in 2009 and now Covid-19, have all spread from animals. SARS spread from cats and bats in China, whilst animal to human transmission of swine flu first took place in an intensive pig farm in North America. Covid-19 probably spread from bats to chickens, then to humans at Chinese “wet” markets.

Factory farms confine thousands of cows, pigs, and chickens into tightly packed conditions where they are forced to suffer the most cruel treatment imaginable. As well as being very cruel, factory farming is a serious threat to human health.  Our demand for large quantities of meat and other animal products means that huge numbers of animals such as cows, chickens and pigs are crammed together in crowded, faeces-ridden factory farms; these provide the perfect breeding grounds for pathogens. Factory farming also creates perfect conditions for the spread of disease. The stress and insanitary conditions weaken animals’ immune systems, making them more susceptible to infection and overcrowding allows disease to spread quickly and easily.

Factory Farming & climate change.

Former New York Times food writer Mark Bittman and environmentalist Bill McKibben—write that it is most urgent that we “reduce the size and number of factory farms.” ……. “As the global health community acknowledges the intertwined nature of planetary and human health, it must also confront the role that factory farming plays in climate change.”

Today, nearly 65 billion animals worldwide, including cows, chickens and pigs, are crammed into factory farms. These animals are literally imprisoned and tortured in unhealthy, unsanitary and unconscionably cruel conditions. Sickness is the norm for these confined animals.

Factory farms contribute directly to global warming by releasing vast amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere—more than the entire global transportation industry. The methane releases from billions of imprisoned animals on factory farms are 70 times more damaging per ton to the earth’s atmosphere than CO2.  When you add it all up, the picture is clear—contemporary agriculture is burning up our planet. And factory farms play a key role in this impending climate disaster.

Palm oil and habitat destruction.

Palm oil – in 50% of all packaged products we buy from supermarkets –causes widespread habitat destruction.

Huge swathes of rainforest in Southeast Asia, Latin America and Africa are bulldozed or burned to make room for these plantations, “green deserts” containing virtually no biodiversity. Avoiding products containing palm oil or making sure it is sustainable and Fairtrade, can also lessen our demands on the natural world. Like COVID-19, Ebola is thought to have originated in bats. “The invasion of West African forests by the palm oil companies destroyed the canopy of the natural forest,” Frank Snowden, a professor emeritus of the history of medicine at Yale University says. “And so bats, not having their natural habitat, had to move to different places — places where human beings are.”

The Wellbeing of all things.

Many researchers today think that it is actually humanity’s destruction of biodiversity that creates the conditions for new viruses and diseases such as Covid-19 to arise – with profound health and economic impacts in rich and poor countries alike. In fact, a new discipline, Planetary Health, is emerging that focuses on the increasingly visible connections between the wellbeing of humans, the wellbeing of other living things and the wellbeing of the Earth and its ecosystems. The coronavirus pandemic is likely to be followed by even more deadly and destructive disease outbreaks unless their root cause – the rampant destruction of the natural world – is rapidly halted, the world’s leading biodiversity experts have warned.

Professors Josef Settele, Sandra Díaz and Eduardo Brondizio led the most comprehensive planetary health check ever undertaken, which was published in 2019 by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), based in Germany.  It concluded that human society was in jeopardy from the accelerating decline of the Earth’s natural life-support systems. Diaz says; “There is a single species responsible for the Covid-19 pandemic – us. Recent pandemics are a direct consequence of human activity, particularly our global financial and economic systems that prize economic growth at any cost. We have a small window of opportunity, in overcoming the challenges of the current crisis, to avoid sowing the seeds of future ones.”

Reducing consumption.

But the best thing we can do as individuals is to radically reduce our consumption. Each new purchase requires natural resources of some kind. If we can cut these down and reuse and recycle, we can drastically shift our exploitative relationship with the natural world and the pandemic potential we create.

Information culled from – Ethical Consumer, The Guardian, The New York Times, Scientific American.

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