Dogs for sale to eat or as pets in Yulin, China. (Adam Dean / The New York Times)

July 8, 2020

Future Pandemics Depend on Our Food Choices

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p style=”text-align: justify”>As the rate of positive COVID-19 tests rise again, we must consider the source of the virus and how to prevent future pandemics. The New York Times referred to the coronavirus as a wave that will “be with us for the foreseeable future before it diminishes” and will take more than one round of social distancing. We cannot depend on the warmer weather to diminish the number of cases or hope that a vaccine comes quickly; we must face the grim reality that the pandemic may persist into the next year.

First, we need to educate ourselves on the nature of zoonotic diseases, which the Center for Disease Control  defines as being caused by “germs spread between animals and people.” According to One Health Commision, in the past three decades around 75 percent of all emerging infectious diseases originated in animals. These viruses are brought to humans by wild animals, whether humans consume them, capture and cross-breed species or increase encounter rates by destroying natural habitats. As the human population grows, people move into new geographic areas and are in closer contact with wild animals, creating more opportunity for diseases to pass between people and animals. And with the ease of global trade, diseases can spread quickly.

COVID-19 likely came from bats through an intermediary host, possibly the pangolin, due to interaction of species in a wet market — where live animals are traded. The fact that a chance encounter of two wild animals in a market could have sparked a global pandemic with almost 12 million cases to date seems unbelievable. One Health is an approach to achieve optimal global health outcomes that recognizes the health of people is closely connected to the health of animals and our shared environment. This collaborative effort encompasses educators, researchers and policymakers across the globe who aim to learn about and prevent future disease spread. The One Health program encourages changes in land use, the livestock industry and wildlife trade.

One of the scientists who organized One Health’s 2004 international conference is Cornell’s own Dr. Steven Osofsky, a wildlife veterinarian and professor at Cornell’s College of Veterinary Medicine and director of the Cornell Wildlife Health Center. A ‘simple’ (but not easy) way to significantly reduce the likelihood of future pandemics, is to dramatically reduce human-wildlife contact. Dr. Osofsky also wrote that safe food systems need to be developed so that those who currently consume wild animals no longer need to do so. International wildlife trade needs to cease. Much of the wildlife trade involves exotic animals for a wealthier clientele, which implies that consumption is not necessary for those peoples’ survival. Dr. Osofsky notes that if we don’t have the nutritional need to consume wildlife, then we need to recognize the risks far exceed the benefits. In addition to wildlife markets, livestock markets also risk spreading disease. Animal breeding farms that don’t meet health regulations could yield similar results to wet markets.

These environments, such as factory farms producing beef, pork, milk and eggs, are breeding grounds for zoonotic diseases. If animal slaughter and trade did not exist, then this area of human-animal contact would decrease significantly. Diseases such as COVID-19, Avian influenza and Ebola virus may not have affected us. Not only would moving away from animal agriculture help prevent zoonotic diseases, but by reallocating the land used for raising animals towards crops, we could feed an additional four billion people.

With the entire world suffering from the direct and indirect effects of COVID-19, it’s important we understand the cause of zoonotic diseases and how to prevent them in the future. It’s time to face the facts: Animal agriculture and wildlife trade have a major impact on our global health, and we must make significant changes.

Melanie Metz is a rising junior in the College of Human Ecology. She can be reached at [email protected].