According to different estimates based on FAO data, every year globally over 150 billion animals (also taking into account fishing) end up in our food production cycle, of which at least 80 billion through intensive farming. The magnitude of this number is even more striking when compared with the estimate of the Population Reference Bureau, estimating that from the beginning of time around 113 billion human beings ever lived. Is there a link between this explosion in global livestock production and the emergence of new epidemics, such as the Covid-19 pandemic?

2 million deaths per year

According to the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) “about 75 percent of the new diseases that have affected humans in the past ten years have been transmitted by animals or animal products“. “The diseases that are transmitted directly or indirectly by animals, including farm animals, to humans are called zoonoses,” explains Valentina Rizzi, head of the team that deals with zoonoses for Efsa. “Especially in the past ten years, the vast additions of new human diseases have originated from animals or animal-based foods.”

In 2016, the United Nations Environmental Program (Unep) published a report (Frontiers 2016) which recounts a worrying increase in zoonoses in recent years

  • linked to the rapid destruction of ecosystems, deforestation and the illegal sale of wild species;
  • amplified by the intensification of livestock and climate change.

“To date, zoonoses have affected the poorest populations,” says Inger Andresen, executive director of Unep. “In the 2016 report, we gave numbers: about 2 billion people affected and about 2 million victims a year, just for a small span of zoonoses. And all this before the appearance of the Coronavirus “. The reason? According to the report: “Never before have so many animals been kept by so many people—and never before have so many opportunities existed for pathogens to pass from wild and domestic animals through the biophysical environment to affect people causing zoonotic diseases or zoonoses.”

Deforestation and feed

The most agreed hypothesis about the origin of the current Covid pandemic is related to a virus from wild animals, in particular “horseshoe” bats. In recent weeks WWF published the report “The loss of nature and rise of pandemics“, gathering a series of scientific studies demonstrating the direct link between deforestation and the emergence of new pathogens through wild animals. “Every time we destroy ecosystems we expose ourselves to new viruses because we create extraordinary conditions for them,” says Isabella Pratesi, forest manager for WWF Italia. “This is because viruses that were previously kept at bay by ecosystems such as forests, suddenly have a unique opportunity to leave the few hundred monkeys or the few thousand animals that parasitized, to pass on to nearly eight billion human beings”.

According to FAO, at least 70 percent of global deforestation is due to the advancement of agriculture, in particular (80%) of new cattle pastures, soybean monocultures and oil palm plantations. The role of animal husbandry is of prime importance not only for the increase in pastures, but also for soybeans (90% used for the production of feed for farms) and for palm oil (also used in feed production).

“The link between deforestation and the emergence of new viruses has already been reported in the past for other epidemics by robust scientific studies,” says Giorgio Vacchiano, a researcher in forest management and planning at the State University of Milan. “It’s not that cities are expanding into the forest,” continues Vacchiano, “but human activities are expanding and taking the place of these tropical forests. The cultivation of soybeans, the cultivation of palm oil in Indonesia, the creation of new pastures, are all things that bring humans into contact with this kind of pathogens”.

Intensive farming, the Disneyland of viruses

While on the one hand animal hyper-production is linked to the destruction of ecosystems for feed production, on the other the proliferation of intensive farming is creating increasingly risks for the emergence and spread of new epidemics.

“The more we consumers demand animal protein, the more the market responds and the animal population increases,” says Inger Andersen. “Typically viruses originate in wild environments and are transmitted by wild birds, bats and other vectors to farmed animals. This in particular occurs in poultry and pig farming, but may also concern other sectors. We cannot deny that zoonoses often take this path, as science tells us”.

According to Luca Busani of the Department of Infectious Diseases of the Italian Higher Institute of Health “The risk is greater where the density and quantity of animals is greater, for the simple reason that a dense population is a huge flywheel for any infectious agent that manages to enter in this population “. According to Busani, the origin of new viruses is mainly linked to wild animals, but intensive farming represents a risk, because despite biosecurity measures, “pathogens can still enter”. “Each farm has enormous uniformity,” continues the researcher. “If you think about poultry farming, broilers are all the same. The genetic basis is extremely limited and inside each farms the animals have the same age and the same sex. As a result, a pathogen entering there is practically in Disneyland, because it finds identical populations where it is very easy to spread “.

The circulation of viruses in intensive farms also poses a threat considering mutations, one of the main risk factors, linked to the jump among species and the menace to the immune systems in animals and humans. “The coronavirus we are dealing with these days is mutagenic, just like all coronaviruses are mutagenic,” says Antonio Limone, a veterinarian at the Portici Zooprophylactic Institute. “We veterinarians know them well because we have studied them since 1937, we have found 26 serotypes in chickens”.

The Chinese mega farms

In September 2019, the Danish Crown multinational, one of the world leaders in the production of pork meat, inaugurated a new intensive farm in China, 100 km from Shanghai, with a production capacity of 14 thousand tons per year. “Building an intensive farm to serve one city may seem extreme,” said Niels Knudsen, Danish Crown’s China manager, after the inauguration of the site. “But over 24 million people live in Shanghai, and another 80 million live within 200 km of the farm. LWe are talking about the equivalent of the population of the entire Germany. “

The Danish Crown case is not isolated: the dizzying increase in per capita consumption of meat in China and other Asian countries and South America (still much lower than United States or Europe) is pushing the birth and evolution of new intensive farms across the planet. According to the forecasts of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), by 2028 global meat production is expected to increase by another 40 million tons, reaching 364 million. Similarly, in the current trend, the demand for cereals and oilseeds (soybeans) for feed production is set to increase, and consequently pressure on tropical forests.

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