Is factory farming -also- to blame for coronavirus?
As the pandemic is ongoing scientists try to find conclusive answers on where the pandemic came from and how it spilled over to humans. As the answers are pieced together there seems to be causality in fields that escape our attention while they really shouldn’t.
The genetic sequence of the SARS-CoV-2 as identified in a recent study, implicates that it is indeed a product of natural evolution, ruling out possible theories that it could have been lab or otherwise engineered. Its genome shares similarities with other coronaviruses that are known to infect bats, as it is well established by now, must have transited to humans through an intermediate animal host, most likely a pangolin found in a wet market of Wuhan city China. Although evidence points China as the geographic origin of the virus and there has been heavy criticism on the Chinese eating habits and conditions in wet markets, yet this tradition in China is not new. It seems like it was only a matter of time until a virus like this emerged as a pandemic among humans. And as seeking for causality continues it becomes ever clearer that the emergence of the pandemic has its root to the relationship between humans and ecology.
As from the 90s, China upgraded in industrial food production scale resulting in smallholding farmers being excluded from the livestock industry and many of them turned to “wild” species farming. The smallholders were also pushed closer to uncultivable zones where wild animals and the viruses that infect them are present. As humans continue to expand into formerly undisturbed ecosystems the risk of increasing number of zoonoses becomes even higher.
But wet markets are not the only problem. Modern models of animal farming have also large contribution to the emergence of zoonoses. The meat produced for consumption today comes in most cases from animals in farms that are genetic clones of each other, immunocompromised, and regularly drugged. Moreover, the density with which poultry and other animals are packed into factory farms makes it fairly easy for viruses to emerge as was the cases with H1N1 (swine flu) and H5N1 (bird flu). Both these pandemics evolved on chicken and pig factory farms. Indeed poultry farms are the most common origin of viruses that have mutated from a form found only in animals into a form that insults humans (“antigenic shift”).
The pandemics are no longer a “risk”. It is high time we turned our gaze not only to overcoming the current pandemic but also to preventing the next one. This can only be achieved if we reconsider our health in synch with animals’ health, in the case of wild animals by limiting and regulating human intervention in their ecosystems. As for the link between factory farming and increasing pandemic risk is well established scientifically, but national policies seem to “follow the money” rather than the public’s best interest.