Bird flu, zoonotic diseases and pandemics: time to reduce our meat consumption

Image of chickens crowded into a pen
Image by  Nemetz33 for Creative Commons

In a year of unprecedented loss and sacrifice we would rather not have to talk about what further disruption might be down the line. However, there are lessons to be learnt and the tragedies of 2020 are unlikely to be a one off.

There is an outbreak of bird-flu in Yorkshire with over 10,000 turkeys being culled. Birds that have, or may have, been infected must be killed to avoid a wider spread. In Cheshire 13,500 suffered the same fate, as another disease begins to tighten its grip on the UK. Bird flu is a zoonotic disease, which means it passes from an animal or insect to a human. Zoonotic diseases are the most common type of new infectious disease.

Bird flu is generally not a problem for humans where there is little sustained or intense contact between them. Workers on poultry farms or bird-processing plants are the most susceptible. As an increasing number of people eat birds across the world, industrial poultry farming has grown and so too have the fears of bird flu becoming the next pandemic. Although the likelihood of catching bird flu is very low, it is a deadly disease which can kill up to 40 percent of those infected. The severity of bird flu, with its unpredictable mutations, increases concern and the huge demand for poultry as well as other animal products, needs to be addressed if the risk is to be reduced.

When birds are farmed for their meat, they are often kept in densely packed spaces whether that be outdoor or indoor. The high concentration of birds makes it easier for bird flu to spread amongst a flock and between flocks when animals are transported, or as wild birds come to feed at farms.

Zoonotic diseases are on the rise as land use changes across the world and urban areas grow, infringing on natural wildlife habitats. As wild animals carrying disease come into closer contact with humans or their domesticated animals, the risk of a contagion increases, and the risk of a pandemic intensifies.

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Poultry farming conditions are very similar to the conditions in which other farmed animals live. Intensive farming has increased, as consumption of meat has grown. Intensive farming conditions and the proximity of wild and domestic animals increase the risk of zoonotic diseases such as SARS and Covid-19. This is a considerable Public health concern, as these diseases are on the rise both in frequency and severity.

To avoid yet another global pandemic caused by a zoonotic disease there must be a radical change in the way meat is farmed and processed. Increased meat consumption will lead to more intensive farming and processing and greater risk of disease. If fewer animals are consumed, fewer will be farmed and there will be greater space and improved conditions for the remaining livestock. Better conditions lessen the likelihood of zoonotic diseases spreading and reduces the possibility of more pandemics.

Here in the UK, as is the case across much of the global north, we have access to a wide range of alternatives to meat and can begin to reduce the global demand for meat.

More people will need to stop consuming meat, and those who continue to do so, will need to eat much less. Greenpeace suggests that Europeans (who consume the most meat) must cut down on their consumption by 70 percent in the next ten years in order to prevent another pandemic.

It is heartening to see that an increasing number of people are giving up eating meat and fish and many more are reducing their consumption. More people are going vegan across the world. At present, in the UK the figure is about two percent of the population, but this is expected to double over the course of the next year as more people choose not to eat or use animal products. We are showing our capability to do what is required in small but growing numbers.

The more people who subscribe to a vegan diet, the better the chance we have of controlling the spread of infectious diseases and preserve the wellbeing of humanity.

This may require people to once again prove their capacity for personal sacrifice, a quality which has been on display throughout the year. 2020 has been a year of sacrifice and loss. A shift towards veganism no longer seems like a utopian ideal, but an effective measure in defending us from further pandemics.

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