The pandemic is served!
The COVID-19 pandemic has focused our attention on food safety and foodborne illness. Our food is the source of life, but increasingly it also causes disease – and death. Today’s food system interacts with human health as much as it does with the health of our environment.
By Lars Peder Hedberg
Late May 2021, Russia’s veterinary watchdog, Rosselkhoznadzor, announced the country would start vaccinating dogs to protect them from COVID-19. So, when Fido, Spot, or rather Boris (one of the most common Russian dog names) cozy up in Russian beds, they will not risk being infected – nor will Mom or Dad.
“About 70% of all infectious diseases are spread to humans from animals – and almost 50% come from the agricultural sector.”
Apes, cats, and minks also pick up the dreaded coronavirus. Tigers and lions in zoos all over the world have fallen severely ill or died from COVID-19, infected by their zookeepers and caretakers. In Denmark, 17 million farmed minks – with furs valued at US$1 Billion – were slaughtered in panic when it was discovered they were infected and could pass the disease back to humans in a mutated form. At this point, infection by pets is not considered a significant risk, but Russia is obviously not taking any chances.
The animal connection
Undeniably, zoonotic diseases – transmitted between animal species and humans – have become increasingly common and are now considered an escalating threat. Many of these illnesses, such as swine and bird flu, are directly linked to the food system and, above all, large-scale livestock farming. Others, such as COVID-19, SARS, Ebola, and HIV, are caused by our encroachment on wild habitats, making it easier for viruses to transmit to humans. About 70% of all infectious diseases are spread to humans from animals – and almost 50% come from the agricultural sector.
Feeding a growing global population is a monumental challenge. To do so without compromising – and instead promoting – the health of people and the biosphere has proven insurmountable so far. The pandemic has brought food safety to the forefront, exposing how vulnerable we are to food-related illnesses.
Although the source of SARS-CoV-2 infection – the infectious agent that caused the COVID-19 pandemic – is not fully clarified or understood, it’s “likely to very likely” (according to the WHO) linked to Wuhan’s wet market, where the virus migrated from bats to humans via one or more intermediate host animals, brought to the market live. Pangolins, porcupines, chipmunks, bamboo rats, giant salamanders, snakes, foxes, wolf pups, raccoon dogs – and ordinary dogs – rank among the 30 candidates traded live by 10 licensed stall owners at Wuhan’s Huanan Seafood market in late 2019.
China boasts one of the world’s most advanced and varied gastronomies, with a wide definition of what is edible, compared to Western cultural norms. Dog meat has been featured on menus for thousands of years; an estimated 10 to 20 million dogs – both farmed and stray – are slaughtered for human consumption every year, and strays are still an important protein source in poor rural communities. There is even an annual Lychee and Dog Meat Festival in Yulin, Guangxi, last carried out on June 21, 2020.
Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, China’s Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs has officially declared that dogs are companions and should not be treated as livestock. Indeed, in the last couple of decades, keeping dogs as pets has soared in popularity. Today, dog ownership is expected to exceed 130 million individuals, almost doubling U.S. numbers. In fact, pet dogs have become a prominent status symbol. In wet markets such as Wuhan’s Huanan Seafood Market, there’s a thin line between slaughtered canines on display, live ones in cages, stray dogs perusing stalls for a bite or a lick – and cherished pets carried by shoppers. Cute little Jūn, Băo, or Jí (popular Chinese dog names) might bring home some less-than innocent freeloaders from their outings.
Wuhan is also the focal point for SARS-CoV-2’s alternative genesis story – the lab-leak theory, currently gaining traction again. The presumed source would be the city’s acclaimed biological research facility, the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), spearheaded by the now world-renowned “Batwoman,” Dr. Shi Zhengli.
China, very unhappy with the unflattering attention, has launched alternative hypotheses about COVID-19’s provenance: why not frozen seafood from Southern Asia or possibly Norway?
Destruction of nature is the root cause of pandemics
In January 2020, China imposed a temporary ban on the trade of wild animals for food. But the demand for exotic luxury foods – along with traditional Chinese medicines – had been on the rise for some time, bolstered by a poorly regulated wildlife trade and rampant poaching, bringing some species to the brink of extinction. The Sunda Pangolin is one of them – endangered all over Asia – due to high demand both for its meat and its scales, used in traditional medicine.
This temporary ban coincides with preparations for the Convention on Biological Diversity that China is hosting in Kunming from October 11 to 24, 2021. This is where world leaders hope to agree on a new action plan to stop global extinction in the next ten years. According to a paper published in Science, 8,775 species globally are at risk of extinction as a result of illegal trade:
“The trade of wildlife for luxury foods and medicinal parts and as pets is now so substantial that it represents one of the most prominent drivers of vertebrate extinction risk globally. Each year, billions of wild plants and animals are traded to meet a rapidly expanding global demand, a demand so insatiable that, globally, US$8 billion to $21 billion is reaped annually from the illegal trade, making it one of the world’s largest illegitimate businesses.”
Today, it’s quite clear that the root cause of pandemics is the destruction of nature. Our increasing demand for food is the primary driver, pushing agriculture and livestock farming to annex ever-more land. In the past 40 years alone, agriculture has expanded its land use by 10 percent – a landmass larger than South Africa – costing rapid loss of rain forests and other vulnerable habitats. The safety distance between wildlife and us is continuously shrinking, making it easier for viruses to leap from animals to humans. Physical distancing is a safety policy that should translate from the social to the wildlife scene as well.
The COVID-19 pandemic’s direct effects on mortality, combined with indirect effects such as under-treatment of other diseases and increased infant mortality, have lowered global life expectancy by several years. But, as bad as this sounds, COVID-19 is not the worst killer with a food system connection.
Food; a manifold hazard
Every year, 600 million people catch some 200 different types of foodborne diseases. But food impacts our health in many other ways. Unhealthy food is in fact one of the predominant killers. Globally, premature deaths due to unhealthy food – all forms of non-communicable diseases; including obesity, malnourishment, cardiovascular disease, and cancer – amount to 10-11 million annually. (https://www.thelancet.com/article/S0140-6736(19)30041-8/fulltext)
Food safety programs focus chiefly on keeping bacteria at bay. They are the most common cause of food poisoning, but parasites, fungi, and other microorganisms in food and drink can also cause poisoning. Additionally, many of the hygiene measures that aim to keep food safe, such as the use of plastic packaging, drastically contaminate living environments and marine habitats in particular. Microplastics entering the food chain – and our bodies – is a growing health concern.
Health dangers in food have many sources, including harmful cooking conditions. Annually, three million premature deaths are caused by indoor smoke and pollution, primarily related to cooking on primitive stoves.
Chemically intensive agriculture spills numerous environmental toxins, carcinogens, and other harmful substances into the biosphere, ricocheting directly and indirectly on human health. Human emissions of toxic and long-lived substances like organic compounds, heavy metals, and radioactive substances add to grave health concerns, short- and long term. These substances can reduce fertility, cause cancer, and lead to genetic defects.
Industrial processing and ultra-processing of foodstuff often add further malicious substances, undermining human health.
Two of the UN’s SDGs, “Zero Hunger by 2030” and “Good Health and Well-Being”, seem far from attainable in this decade.
It is indeed an irony that the fuel of life: food – the way we source, produce, and consume it today – harms not only nature but us as well.