First, it was COVID, then it was monkeypox, and now it’s foot and mouth disease. The latest has been discovered in meat products that have entered Australia from China and Indonesia.
Foot and mouth, thank God, does not affect humans, however, a single case could cause the shut down of Australia’s $27 billion livestock exports for years. Viral fragments have been found in a beef product brought by a passenger from Indonesia as well as in pork products sold in Melbourne. Those products also contained fragments of African swine fever, which has not been seen before in Australia.
The fragments are not live and they can’t spread, however, with a major outbreak of foot and mouth in Indonesia, border security are on high alert.
Even before the pandemic, scientists have been warning that human proximity to animals was increasing the likelihood of new diseases. SARS, bird flu, swine flu, chicken pox, cowpox, monkeypox, and, yes, COVID-19 are all zoonotic diseases. This means they’ve jumped host from animal to human and begun infecting us in ways that our immune systems aren’t prepared for. This is a by-product of the agricultural industry and a risk that is only increasing as humans encroach on wild spaces, pack animals tightly together in industrial farming operations, and work in slaughterhouses.
The leading theory of the origin of SARS-COV-2 is that it jumped from a pangolin to a bat and then into humans at a wet market in Wuhan, China. Wet markets sell fresh meat, fish, and other produce. In some countries, animals are sold live in small containers, meaning sellers spend extended time amongst animals kept with poor hygiene. Certain wet markets also deal in wildlife, rare and exotic animals, and will slaughter them on-site at purchase. This is a great way to introduce new pathogens to humans, but it’s not a problem exclusive to other countries as all intensive farming carries this risk.
According to Benjamin Cuker, Professor of Marine and Environmental Science at Hampton University, every known disease epidemic that has ever plagued humans has its origin in animals. Flu came from ducks, cattle gave us measles, chickens gave us typhoid, and pigs gave us whooping cough. These animals live with those diseases and have immune systems that protect against them. Since humans typically don’t, when they mutate and make the leap to us, we have very little defence against them and therefore they’re extremely harmful. Not all contact with animals will cause a disease to jump host, but the more contact you have, the higher the chances of this happening.
We spend so much time around animals as a species because we enjoy eating them. There is a demand for it, therefore there is a supply. This supply is becoming increasingly dangerous however because of the industrial levels of farming needed to keep pace with demand. Poor hygiene controls as a result of mass-scale farming and the exposure to animals we don’t frequently come into contact with, like pangolins and bats, is what drive these new diseases.
We’ve had so many close calls in just the last few decades alone. SARS could have been a pandemic if it wasn’t brought under control in South East Asia. MERS — Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome — could have done similar and resulted in thousands of pigs being slaughtered to prevent the spread, even though the disease didn’t come from pigs. It was only a matter of time before something on the level of COVID popped up, and it certainly won’t be the last.
This isn’t a dig at farmers. There are few people who appreciate animals more than those who work closely with them — at least in most instances. As stated, the export market for Australian meat is vast and our economy wouldn’t be able to cope without it. However, we’ve known for a long time that we need to reduce our meat consumption, even if it’s not for animal rights reasons.
Agriculture is the leading cause of climate change through the production of meat, the methane and other gasses emitted, and the transporting of products. Already, some 30% of the population supports a plant-based diet because of the impact it has on the planet, at least according to data from the UN.
The health benefits are also well known. Humans do not need animal protein to survive and in many cases, would be far better off without it. Those who eat a diet high in protein are more likely to die of heart disease, kidney failure, and diabetes. Meat can be a treat, but it shouldn’t be considered a necessity, or even a healthy one.
We’ll spare you the grisly details but it’s fair to say that most people who do eat meat would likely change their minds pretty quickly if they had to work in a slaughterhouse for even one day. If you have a moral issue with the practice, eating the product is simply outsourcing that to someone else, often a low-paid worker in a foreign country. The same could be said of smartphones, the raw materials for which are gathered using hideously problematic practices, but we now live in a world where it’s far more feasible to drop the meat than it is to drop constant online connection.
That there will be more pandemics, caused by humans and driven by the desire for cheap meat, is a given, unless we change our behaviour. Professor Robert Bragg, of the UK’s Department of Microbial, Biochemical and Food Biotechnology, has said that COVID “could just be a dress rehearsal for the real big pandemic”.
Bird flu, for instance, has given us a few scares in the past. It has a mortality rate of 60-65%. If it mutates effectively for human-to-human transmission, we’ll need more than masks and social distancing to keep it at bay.
“Many virologists, including me, have been predicting an influenza pandemic for many years,” Bragg said. “Mankind has been warned about coming pandemics for many years, but people seem to want to listen only when they are in the midst of one.”