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The COVID-19 crisis requires us to think about the future of our food

09 Jan 2020

A vir­us, the tini­est of bio­lo­gic­al entit­ies, has the apex pred­at­or of this plan­et – Homo sapi­ens – in its grip. In one sense, that’s some­thing most of us nev­er ima­gined could hap­pen. In anoth­er sense, many sci­ent­ists have been pre­dict­ing and fear­ing this very scen­ario for a long time.

This is not a time for point­ing fin­gers; it is a time to work togeth­er con­struct­ively. And yet, amidst optim­iz­ing our health care and try­ing to pre­vent our eco­nomy from plum­met­ing, we also need to identi­fy the causes and risk factors involved in this pan­dem­ic.

Zoonot­ic dis­eases
The corona vir­us is a zoonot­ic dis­ease, mean­ing that it was trans­mit­ted between anim­als and humans. These dis­eases are gain­ing trac­tion world­wide, with three out of four new infec­tion dis­eases being zoonoses (1). While it is impossible to entirely pro­tect ourselves against them, we can cer­tainly decrease the risk of new ones emer­ging and spread­ing. How often a vir­us crosses the spe­cies bor­der between anim­als and humans is to a sig­ni­fic­ant extent with­in our con­trol..

Bats, pan­golins and oth­er wild­life
While we don’t yet know which exact anim­als trans­ferred the COV­ID-19 vir­us to humans – sci­ent­ists are look­ing in the dir­ec­tion of bats and pan­golins – it is clear that China’s wild­life industry is at the heart of the mat­ter. Very prob­ably the vir­us was first spread via a so-called wet mar­ket” in the Chinese city of Wuhan. Wet mar­kets are open air mar­kets where live anim­als are taken out of their cages to be killed right in front of the cus­tom­er (if you google Huanan mar­ket”, you’ll get the pic­ture). Because of the pres­ence of many dif­fer­ent anim­al spe­cies, and their respect­ive blood, excre­ment and entrails, those places are poten­tial breed­ing grounds for vir­uses. They can mutate very quickly there, until they have adap­ted to also thrive inside human bod­ies.

Bush meat
The Chinese gov­ern­ment briefly closed these wet mar­kets after hav­ing iden­ti­fied them as the source of the 2003 SARS (Severe acute res­pir­at­ory syn­drome) pan­dem­ic – which ori­gin­ated in civ­et cats, sold at such mar­kets – only for them to reopen later. While it seems that the Chinese have now enacted a per­man­ent ban on the con­sump­tion of wild anim­als (2), the prob­lem doesn’t stop there, and isn’t geo­graph­ic­ally lim­ited to China. Wild anim­als are traded world­wide. Brus­sels, for instance, seems to be a hub for the import and dis­tri­bu­tion of so-called bush­meat”. Appar­ently it is quite easy to buy meat from endangered spe­cies in cer­tain shops in Belgium’s cap­it­al (3). Bush­meat – or the hunt and con­sump­tion of apes in West-Africa, is believed to also be at the source of the HIV pan­dem­ic, which presently has infec­ted about forty mil­lion people world­wide (4).

Anim­al con­tact
The prob­lem, though, is even big­ger than that. Apart from hunt­ing and trap­ping anim­als, also the con­tact between anim­als and humans in anim­al agri­cul­ture, the killing of anim­als in, and even the con­sump­tion of anim­als can be risky busi­ness. MERS (Middle East res­pir­at­ory syn­drome) is believed to have been trans­mit­ted through the con­sump­tion of camel meat and camel milk. The ori­gins of Ebola seem to lie in people eat­ing bats. And Bovine Spon­gi­form Enceph­alo­pathy (BSE) is a neuro­de­gen­er­at­ive dis­ease of cattle that can be trans­mit­ted to humans through beef con­sump­tion.

Intens­ive anim­al agri­cul­ture
Over the last five dec­ades or so, the domest­ic­a­tion of food anim­als” has taken more intens­ive forms in the shape of so-called CAFOs or con­fined anim­al feed­ing oper­a­tions, also known as fact­ory farms. In these places large amounts of anim­als are packed togeth­er, stress levels are high and hygiene is often insuf­fi­cient. As such, fact­ory farms are good places for zoonot­ic dis­eases to take off (5).

The H1N1 epi­dem­ic (also known as swine flu and very briefly as Mex­ic­an flu) that led to an estim­ated num­ber of 150.000 to 600.000 human fatal­it­ies in 2009 – 2010, prob­ably emerged from a pig farm in North Car­o­lina (6). A little fur­ther back, the H5N1 bird flu in 1997 came from chick­en farms in China (7). The biggest pan­dem­ic in recent his­tory, the so-called Span­ish flu in 1918, cost the lives of tens of mil­lions of people prob­ably after a vir­us went from wild birds to farmed birds to humans (8). Today, we can find out­breaks of anim­al dis­eases at about any time, in sev­er­al places in the world. Presently, for instance, the H5N8 bird flu is hit­ting chick­en farms in Europe, China and India. This vir­us hasn’t made the jump to humans yet, but that may be only a mat­ter of time.

Risk factors
Already in a report of 2004, the WHO warned that one factor con­trib­ut­ing to increased risk of pan­dem­ics was the increased demand for anim­al pro­tein (9). Decreas­ing the amount of anim­als we raise for food and lower­ing our con­sump­tion of anim­al products could – apart from many oth­er advant­ages for health and the envir­on­ment – sig­ni­fic­antly lower the risk of new pan­dem­ics. For dif­fer­ent reas­ons, more and more people are won­der­ing wheth­er we will eat meat in the future. And while a world without anim­al-derived foods may still seem like a total fantasy to many, the quickly increas­ing interest of big food com­pan­ies in plant-based altern­at­ives makes a struc­tur­al change in our think­ing and beha­vi­or ever more obtain­able and likely.

Cul­tiv­ated meat
Altern­at­ives to live­stock exploit­a­tion and the asso­ci­ated soci­et­al risk are on the rise: Apart from plant-based meat altern­at­ives (e.g. soy, wheat or pea-based bur­gers), we are today also see­ing rap­id pro­gress in the field of cul­tiv­ated meat. Cul­tiv­ated meat is based on a tech­no­logy bor­rowed from the field of cell based ther­apy and regen­er­at­ive medi­cine. Cells of the tar­get spe­cies (i.e. beef, pork, chick­en etc.) are taken from a live anim­al through a harm­less biopsy or are extrac­ted once from an embryo. Cul­tiv­ated in vitro through a growth medi­um and scaled up to com­mer­cially viable volume using advanced biopro­cesses and infra­struc­ture, the amount of cells increases from one to mil­lions, depend­ing on their pro­lif­er­at­ive capa­city.

Thus, a food product that is identic­al to live­stock meat in taste and in com­pos­i­tion on the cel­lu­lar level can be cre­ated. An altern­at­ive pro­tein source for flex­it­ari­ans who do not want to com­prom­ise on taste, but without any slaughter involved.
Apart from the obvi­ous anim­al wel­fare advant­ages and pos­sible advant­ages in terms of sus­tain­ab­il­ity (less land, water and energy would be required in its pro­duc­tion), cul­tiv­ated meat may also be a much safer way to con­sume anim­al tis­sue than the tra­di­tion­al one. Cells are derived from a stable and vir­us-free gen­ome. The cells can be cul­tiv­ated in a closed envir­on­ment which min­im­izes the trans­mis­sion of zoonot­ic dis­eases. Peace of Meat, for example, pro­duces cul­tiv­ated anim­al fat from non-genet­ic­ally mod­i­fied avi­an embryon­ic stem cells. One cell only has the abil­ity to repro­duce con­tinu­ously in aseptic and vir­us-con­trolled envir­on­ments.

Anoth­er advant­age is that cul­tured meat can be pro­duced loc­ally, col­lab­or­at­ing with loc­al gov­ern­ments and incentiv­iz­ing the loc­al eco­nomy. Addi­tion­ally, cul­tured meat pro­duc­tion can be cus­tom­ized to loc­al demand, even com­pens­at­ing for spe­cif­ic nutri­tion­al defi­cien­cies. New jobs would be cre­ated and skilled work­ers could trans­fer their know­ledge and exper­i­ence to factor­ies in oth­er areas. Loc­al farm­ers could get involved, embra­cing cul­tured meat tech­no­logy as part of their busi­ness mod­el. Meat import costs would go down drastic­ally. By 2050, more than half of the world’s pop­u­la­tion is expec­ted to rely on food sourced from oth­er coun­tries. How­ever, with the intro­duc­tion of loc­al cul­tured meat pro­duc­tion, there could be a dif­fer­ent scen­ario pos­sible. A study con­duc­ted by the Pots­dam Insti­tute for Cli­mate Impact Research (10) already shows that, in the near future, many nations will be pushed to make a top pri­or­ity out of max­im­iz­ing their domest­ic food pro­duc­tion capa­city. Cul­tured meat could become an import­ant part of the solu­tion.

The future
We can­not blame any one cul­ture, coun­try or geo­graph­ic­al area for pan­dem­ics, as they occur any­where. In the same way, we should seek to blame any sec­tor, com­pany or stake­hold­er for everything that has gone wrong with our food sys­tem. The respons­ib­il­ity in cre­at­ing a food sys­tem that min­im­izes the emer­gence of new zoonot­ic dis­eases, and that is safer, more sus­tain­able and more com­pas­sion­ate over­all, is a respons­ib­il­ity that all of us share: from pro­du­cers to con­sumers, from gov­ern­ments to NGOs.

It should be clear that today, in the middle of the pan­dem­ic, our atten­tion should first of all go to con­trolling the vir­us and help­ing the afflic­ted. After we’ll have conquered the crisis and rebuilt our eco­nomy, we’ll need to take the time to see how we will be able to avoid oth­er, poten­tially much worse pan­dem­ics in the future. Part of the answer will be found in the way we relate to anim­als and food.

Tobi­as Leen­aert is the author of How to Cre­ate a Vegan World: a Prag­mat­ic Approach and blogs at www​.vegan​strategist​.org. He is a long­time speak­er and strategist, giv­ing talks and train­ings all over the world. He is also co-founder of ProVeg Inter­na­tion­al, and the founder of the Bel­gian vegan organ­iz­a­tion EVA, the only one the world to receive struc­tur­al gov­ern­ment fund­ing. A vegan for over twenty years, Tobi­as lives in Bel­gi­um, with his part­ner and many res­cued anim­als.

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