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Conservation Research Institute


Experts have urged people to cut back on meat to avoid another pandemic

The coronavirus outbreak has caused worldwide devastation, with the global death toll exceeding 482,000. With a third of the world once on lockdown, the economy has also taken a battering.

It has been argued an infectious outbreak has not occurred on this scale since Spanish flu in 1918, which killed between 20 and 50 million people worldwide. The 25 experts have warned everything from sprawling urbanisation to the long distance trade of livestock is bringing humans closer to animals, increasing the risk another pathogen will “jump” from creatures into man. One way to help prevent this is to cut back on meat in favour of a plant-based diet, they said.

Cutting Back on Meat ‘Would go a Long Way’

Infectious diseases can theoretically emerge from wild or domestic animals, as well as livestock. After looking at a series of studies, the experts came up with 161 ways another pandemic could be prevented. Many of these are policy led, like laws to prevent the mixing of different animals or agricultural practices that separate the grazing areas of wild and farmed creatures. Others, however, can be adopted by individuals. For example, the experts recommend switching to plant-based foods to reduce the consumption and demand for meat.

In their report, which is yet to be peer reviewed, they suggest consumer attitudes could be “influenced” to “increase acceptability of lower-risk substitute products”. These include “plants or synthetic substitutes for food, clothing or medicine instead of animal products, particularly those from high-risk species”. High-risk species include bats, carnivores and civets, said study author Dr Alice Hughes from the Chinese Academy of Sciences during a Science Media Centre briefing.

The tax on lower-risk species or plant-based alternatives could also be lowered or subsidised to encourage uptake, added the experts.  “[The] general reduction in [the] consumption of wild animals, farmed wildlife, livestock or animal-based products would go a long way,” said Dr Silviu Petrovan from the University of Cambridge. “That’s an uncontroversial thing to say.”

For those who wish to continuing eating meat, one of the experts recommended changing our spending habits. “In the UK, we have a choice where we buy products from,” said Professor James Wood from the University of Cambridge. “We should make sure the meat we buy is sustainably sourced, not produced in the Amazon, which is a major source of deforestation. “Individuals who don’t want to give up meat can push towards sustainable products, where the welfare and environmental impact can be much smaller”.

In relation to deforestation, Professor Andrew Cunningham from the Institute of Zoology said: “Biodiversity is a protective mechanism against disease emergence. “As we decrease biodiversity, we increase disease emergence.” While making these 161 changes will not eliminate the risk of an outbreak entirely, it could lower the odds.

“We can’t completely prevent further pandemics, but there are a range of options that can substantially reduce the risk,” said Dr Petrovan. “Most zoonotic [animal] pathogens are not capable of sustained human-to-human transmission, but some can cause major epidemics. “Preventing their transfer to humans is a major challenge for society and also a priority for protecting public health.”

Just Banning Widlife Trade is not a Solution

Evidence suggests the coronavirus may have started in bats before jumping into humans, possibly via snakes or pangolins. Most of those who initially became unwell worked at or visited a seafood and live animal market in the Chinese city Wuhan, capital of Hubei province.