The outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic has raised myriad questions about the past and future of our global civilization. Questions about the past mostly relate to the level of preparedness for this kind of crisis, and while there are compelling arguments for both why we should or should not have invested more in response-readiness, these are questions that will most likely be investigated once the crisis has passed. However, one can imagine that politicians who ignored their nation’s lacking healthcare systems and underprioritized public health emergency response services will have a price to pay. Regarding the future, there has been a (social) media firestorm of speculations as to how our society will look after the pandemic is over. Will we discover that we should have been working from home all along, or that the physical workspace is a vital part of our social fabric? Are global value chains too vulnerable to the slightest upset in trade networks, or are they critical to maintaining the international flow of goods and services when local markets find themselves suddenly paralyzed? Do countries need to increase coordination and cooperation of health and emergency response services, or do nations need to always be prepared to become self-sufficient at a moment’s notice? One thing that seems certain, though, is that when people finally come out of their homes, they will be entering a new world, not the one they left behind. The pandemic has given (or forced upon) the world an opportunity to reflect and re-evaluate our social, economic and political order, and it seems unlikely that none of the lessons we learn about ourselves over the coming months and years would be implemented.
There is one central fragment of the story of Covid-19 that seems, thus far, to have flown mostly under the radar of the prophets of the new world order, and that is our relationship with the animals we eat. Although this strain of coronavirus most likely emerged from a wild-animal market, the outbreak of the pandemic is an indictment of the entire livestock industry. The business of raising and consuming animals poses one of the greatest dangers to modern human civilization, and if there is one thing that needs to change in light of this crisis, it is what the world does to mitigate these hazards. At this point, in the interest of full disclosure, I feel compelled to point out that I myself am a vegetarian, for a variety of reasons. However, this article is not meant to preach the morality of different dietary habits, nor to guilt anyone out of their next cheeseburger, but rather to discuss the cold, hard facts about the serious risks that the livestock industry poses to public health and the policy measure needed to keep our food safe, so bear with me.
Both in scope and method, the livestock industry has become a perilous endeavor for humankind. The risks it poses range from environmental challenges regarding greenhouse gas emissions and the pollution of land and water to health concerns such as the amount of meat the average human consumes today and the fact that red meat and processed meat products are carcinogenic. These problems have already taken a huge toll on society as their consequences slowly manifest on the general population and the environment. Though we are already incurring these costs, they are slowly integrated into public spending and decreased quality of life, making it difficult to confront them head-on. However, the livestock industry poses another threat that tends to exist only as a hypothetical one, until all of sudden it is not: the spread of infectious diseases.
Covid-19 is presumed to have originated in bats and then transferred to pangolins (though the precise source of the virus remains a topic of debate in the scientific community), one of which would have been consumed by a human, who contracted a mutation of the virus that was able to take hold and spread in our species. This is far from the first time diseases have spread to humans in this fashion. SARS followed a similar path, and the source of bird and swine flu is in the name. HIV was introduced into human populations from monkeys. When viral diseases transfer between species, it requires the occurrence of a mutation in the virus. This is because viruses have a tendency to be host-specific, meaning a specific virus is only capable of infecting a certain type of organism, until genetic modifications allow it to infect a new (and still specific) type of organism. Therefore, it follows that the more livestock we keep, the more viruses such as Covid-19 can propagate, thereby increasing the chances of mutations that allow these viruses to transfer to other species. Though this process also happens in wild animal populations, an increased exposure to virus-carrying populations of animals would increase the risk of a mutated virus making its way into the human population. As previously mentioned, this process has already occurred on multiple occasions, and it will most certainly occur again.
There is, however, an even more potent threat of infectious diseases from animals. Unlike viruses, bacteria are less host-specific, meaning that infectious and harmful bacteria that develop in one animal species do not need to undergo a mutation to be able to spread in other animal species; and humans are no exception. The crowded and unsanitary conditions in which livestock are kept are the perfect environment for the development of all kinds of devastating bacteria. This threat has mostly been held at bay until now by the overuse of antibiotics in the livestock industry. From their first day until their last, farm animals are pumped full of antibiotics meant to keep them just healthy enough to be sold for consumption. This helps prevent the spread of bacterial infections not only in livestock populations, but to humans as well.
Nonetheless, one of the growing concerns facing public health officials and medical experts is the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. This is not a theoretical problem – antimicrobial resistance (AMR) is already taking a toll on health and the economy. It is estimated that over 15% crops worldwide are lost every year to a host of pathogens, and the rise of AMR bacteria threatens to run this number even higher. Such AMR microbes are also regularly found to be growing and spreading in hospitals. The reason there have not been serious bacterial epidemics is because of the use of what are known as wide spectrum antibiotics, which can kill almost all types of bacteria. However, as AMR develops, these wide spectrum antibiotics are rendered ineffective. The threat of AMR is increasing, and as populations grow, so does AMR’s potential impact on society. Parallel to the rise of AMR, the discovery of new antibiotics has decreased vastly in recent decades. These contrasting trends pose the threat of a post-antimicrobial era, wreaking havoc on the medicine and agriculture sectors. AMR bacteria already kill as many as 700,000 people annually, and it is estimated that by 2050, these resistant microorganisms could cause up to 10 million deaths each year. The more antibiotics are improperly and over-used in the livestock industry, the greater the risk of so-called ‘super bacteria’ evolving in animal populations that humans are regularly exposed to. Such an episode could ravage human populations around the world, as all of our best medical technologies would fail to even slow the spread of such a disease. An event of this magnitude could make Covid-19 look like a bad flu season.
Despite this apocalyptic vision, there is much that society can do to avert such a terrible fate. To say that humans should stop eating animals would be foolish, as this simply would nott happen anytime soon. The consumption of meat is too deeply entrenched in cultures and psyches across the globe to cease instantaneously. A good policy for the management of livestock populations should address two main shortcomings of the livestock industry today: it should enforce reasonable standards to protect both animal and human populations from the rapid and unstoppable spread of infectious diseases, and it should insist on internalizing the externalized costs of meat and dairy production into the price paid by consumers, so as to limit to global demand of animal products to quantities that can are sustainable from both public health and environmental aspects.
What would reasonable health standards for livestock production look like? First of all, the use of antibiotics should be restricted to treatment of sick animals, not be used as a blanket preventive measure. Reducing the overuse of antibiotics will greatly reduce the chance of AMR bacteria evolving in livestock populations. This would have to be balanced with other sanitary measures to maintain the health of livestock populations, such as strict limits of animals per area as well as standards to keep the living spaces of these animals, as well as the animal themselves, clean. Providing for more sanitary and spacious conditions would go a long way to keeping animals healthier during their lives without the side effect of increasing AMR. These policies would also increase the cost of animal production, reducing demand accordingly.
These measures should also be strictly enforced by an expanded regulatory apparatus. In addition to verifying that sanitary standards are properly implemented, regulators should also administer widespread testing of animals to make sure that when diseases do break out, they can be caught early on and contained. Regulators can also coordinate on the global level to ensure that responses to disease outbreaks are swift and appropriate.
Though China has recently imposed a permanent ban on the kind of wildlife wet markets where Covid-19 originated, the country has also been facing, and fumbling, an outbreak of African swine flu. This pandemic has been raging for 19 months, killing millions of pigs in the process. Attempts by the Chinese government to keep this outbreak under wraps has had far-reaching consequences. The price of pork in China has more than doubled over the past year, global food prices have been destabilized, and the disease has spread to ten other Asian countries. While the response of the Chinese government has been reprehensible, it hardly comes as a surprise.
International protocols for pandemic response with integrated checks on actions taken by local actors could have prevented this catastrophe from reaching such incredible proportions. Such a regulatory mechanism would obviously be costly, and the question of who should foot the bill needs to be addressed. In order for the policy to be most effective, the cost should be reflected in the price paid by consumers. This means that it should be funded by the consumer, and not through established government revenue streams. However, to ensure that the funds are directed from the consumer to the enforcing government, the cost should be paid directly by the producer. Animal products are often consumed in different countries from where they were produced, and simply adding a consumption tax at the point of retail purchase may be ineffective in ensuring that such regulatory bodies are funded by the consumer.
Moreover, the price of animal products should also include the general cost of the livestock industry to the environment. In this case, it may be more difficult to integrate the externalized costs into the cost of production, because the damage caused to the environment is considerably more diffused and harder to prevent during production. However, it would be appropriate in this case to add a consumption tax that could at least cover the cost of carbon capture equal to the carbon emissions caused by the livestock industry, as well as the cost of restoring degraded land and cleaning polluted water sources that have been damaged by the industry. At least some of this money could be used for projects specifically designed to combat the damage caused by the livestock industry, such as reforestation of areas in the Amazon that have been deforested for ranches. Additionally, governments could incentivize more sustainable livestock practices, such as the implementation of cattle grazing patterns that can help keep grasslands healthy. These policies would further affect the price of animal food products so that it would reflect the true price of this industry to society.
Lastly, it is high time for international organizations to take a hands-on approach to the regulation of the livestock industry. Namely, the World Health Organization and the World Trade Organization need to be involved in order for society to truly be protected from the dangers of animal production. The WHO needs to participate in building the capacity of local actors to monitor and respond to outbreaks of infectious diseases in livestock populations, particularly those that pose a threat to humans. In fact, the organization has already partnered with the UN’s FAO to begin creating a policy framework for agricultural industry standards that can facilitate better global food trade patterns. Additionally, it should act as a facilitator of international cooperation on monitoring and responses, developing and implementing protocols for actions that need to be taken while collecting and disseminating relevant information on the health of livestock populations and possible threats arising from this industry.
The WTO needs to work to implement international standards for the livestock industry, and the joint work being done by the WHO and FAO would be a good starting point for such a policy framework. While the WTO only has jurisdiction over trade issues, many animal products do fall under this category. WTO rules already include provisions for public health consideration in trade, and while these mostly comprise exceptions to free trade rules for public health purposes, it would be possible for the organization to also work on creating international industry standards. Though the WTO has not actually succeeded in implementing any new trade agreements for years, it could help encourage the inclusion of such provisions in the many plurilateral trade agreements that continue to be signed around the world between interested parties. In general, the world trade regime is long overdue in working towards international standards for a slew of industries that could help facilitate more trade liberalization around the world, and considering the Covid-19 crisis will perhaps provide the political opportunity for the WTO to begin this work with the livestock industry as prototypical example. In the simplest form, rules could dictate that meat and dairy products traded internationally need to comply with WHO sanitary and health standards. This leaves open the possibility of countries selling substandard products locally. However, this would still greatly reduce the risks of the livestock industry, while such actions could possibly be considered to be in violation of the WTO’s national treatment clause.
Internalizing the true cost of the livestock industry into consumer prices is not a simple endeavor. It will require large investments in research and the construction of new bureaucratic structures and levels of international cooperation that have come to seem all but impossible given the current state of international politics. However, the risk of leaving this industry in its current state poses an existential threat to human civilization; and as the current pandemic exemplifies, it can no longer be ignored. As the world continues to ponder what the long term effects of the corona virus on our civilization will look like, this reform is one that should be considered seriously. The world has grown used to patterns of animal consumption that are simply unsustainable in the long run. This is largely because the price consumers pay for meat at the butcher or eggs at the supermarket is entirely detached from the true costs of these products on our health and environment. The supply and demand for these products needs to be linked to quantities that our society can safely and sustainably produce, and the only way to shift that curve to ensure that prices and costs are accurately correlated.
Acknowledgements: I would like to thank my brother, Amichai Baichman-Kass, for helping me with the scientific explanations of the propagation of viral and bacterial infections. He is currently studying for his master’s degree in microbiology at the Hebrew University in Rehovot, Israel.