We need to reduce our meat consumption if the world is to prevent pandemics like the Covid-19 coronavirus from reoccurring, a researcher said.
The large population of humans, pets and farm animals, as well as the pressures we put on wildlife, have created the “perfect storm” for pandemics, warned Prof. Cock Van Oosterhout of the University of East Anglia.
In an editorial published in the journal Virulence, Prof. Cock Van Oosterhout also warned of the need to halt natural habitat loss in wildlife-rich areas, reduce human-animal conflicts, and prevent disease from spreading to humans and livestock.
There is an urgent need to control the development and transmission of diseases like the virus that causes Covid-19 with the help of vaccination passports, increase genetic variation in farm animals and reduce the amount of meat we eat, the professor said Evolutionary Genetics at the UEA School of Environmental Sciences
“We humans have not lived sustainably in the last few centuries,” wrote Prof. Van Oosterhout.
“We now have an enormous population – not just of humans, but also of domesticated animals and farm animals.
“This is an ideal breeding ground for the development and transmission of zoonotic infectious diseases that are transmitted from an animal to a human host.”
The article points out that the total biological mass of the world’s livestock is more than ten times that of all wildlife combined, but the genetic diversity is well below what is needed.
Genetic variation is crucial to counteract the development of infectious diseases.
However, due to centuries of selective breeding, the cattle are heavily inbred. The genetic variation in 150 sheep and cattle breeds corresponds to a gene pool with an effective population size of 52 animals.
That’s 80 times less than the assumed minimum viable population size for wild species, the article warned.
Urgent action is needed to restore the genetic diversity of farm animals and domestic animals as livestock have become a “sedentary duck” in an arms race with emerging infectious diseases.
Prof. Van Oosterhout warned people about cutting down on meat and dairy products to reduce animal numbers, pointing out how methane from cattle and sheep is contributing to global warming and the dangers of antibiotic resistance, as well as the risk of pandemics.
He also supported the use of vaccination cards – and mandatory vaccination may need to be considered – to break chains of transmission and stop the development of variants.
And he said, “Habitat destruction, illegal wildlife trafficking and other human activities have brought many species into contact – and this makes it easier for pathogens to overflow, run back and hybridize.
“Since we are in close contact with our domesticated animals and farm animals, there are many ways to transmit viruses from animals to humans and to transmit them back to animals from humans.
“Overall, these conditions have created a perfect storm for zoonotic infectious disease development and transmission.”
He said people are not immune to pathogens developing.
He warned: “Our society is at grave threat and we must all do everything we can, both individually and socially, to improve our long-term prospects as a species.
“These changes need to be implemented globally to effectively combat pandemics,” he added.