Coronavirus – and our destruction of the environment

The focus on a meat market in China obscures the more complex role that our destruction of the environment has played in spreading viruses such as COVID-19.

As humans exploit new areas of the natural world, we disturb the viruses they contain, allowing them to transmit to human populations. In this way deforestation and habitat destruction enable pandemics like the one we currently face.

Coronavirus - a man made crisis?

COVID-19 is a zoonotic virus, meaning that it was transmitted from animals to humans. 60% of all new diseases are zoonotic. The list includes SARS, MERS, Ebola and HIV.  

Scientists believe that COVID-19 is likely to have developed in bat populations. It then transmitted to other animals, before being passed onto humans in a ‘wet market’ – selling fresh produce and meat, including wild meat – in Wuhan, China, experts believe.

Infectious diseases like COVID-19 are emerging more rapidly than ever before, and one reason is likely to be our treatment of the environment. As we destroy many of the natural resources we rely on, we push further and further into unknown ecosystems.

Wild meat hunters are forced deeper into forests and other natural landscapes. The animals they kill are more likely to host unknown viruses that humans have not yet been exposed to.

Ecosystem disruption

But our disturbance is not just in the form of hunting: we log forests for wood or agricultural land, mine for minerals and fossil fuels, and destroy habitats for many other industries linked to our consumption. Each increases our contact with previously undisturbed animal populations.

At the same time, these wild animals are pushed closer to human settlements as their habitats are destroyed, bringing viruses with them.

image: orangutans human disruption coronaviruses covid19 zoonotic

David Quammen, author of Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Pandemic, explains in the New York Times:

“We disrupt ecosystems and we shake viruses loose from their natural hosts, when that happens, they need a new host. Often, we are it.”

Like COVID-19, Ebola is thought to have originated in bats. According to a 2017 study, outbreaks of Ebola in Central and West Africa were more likely to occur in areas that had recently been deforested.

“The invasion of West African forests by the palm oil companies destroyed the canopy of the natural forest,” Frank Snowden, a professor emeritus of the history of medicine at Yale University says. “And so bats, not having their natural habitat, had to move to different places — places where human beings are.”

Addressing the Coronavirus crisis

Addressing COVID-19, then, is not only about mutual aid networks, food banks, NHS staff and volunteers, and the other amazing community and health responses we’re seeing. Our relationship with the environment also needs to change if we want to avoid ‘shaking free’ many further viruses of this kind.

Richard Ostfeld, a senior scientist at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies in Millbrook, New York says:

“There’s misapprehension among scientists and the public that natural ecosystems are the source of threats to ourselves... It’s a mistake. Nature poses threats, it is true, but it’s human activities that do the real damage. The health risks in a natural environment can be made much worse when we interfere with it.”

Issues with farming

Although COVID-19 was likely transmitted through the wild meat trade, farmed meat also plays a role in the crisis. Livestock is the world’s largest user of land resources. As our demand for meat grows, larger and larger areas of the natural world are being requisitioned for animal agriculture.

In countries like Brazil, forest is cleared for beef farming or to grow soya and other crops for animal feed. Habitats are destroyed, communities that rely on these forests are pushed further into unknown ecosystems, and humans come into contact with new animal populations and the viruses that they carry.

Choosing a plant-based diet can reduce our destruction of the natural world, and in this way reduce our risk of disrupting viruses with pandemic potential, like COVID-19. Animal agriculture is a very inefficient use of land, meaning that we need a disproportionate amount to meet our nutritional requirements. Some experts estimate that if we all went vegan, we could reduce land use for agriculture by 75% – allowing more undisturbed natural habitats to remain undisturbed.

Palm oil and habitat destruction

Palm oil – in 50% of all packaged products we buy from supermarkets – likewise causes widespread habitat destruction.

Swathes of rainforest in Southeast Asia, Latin America and Africa are bulldozed or burnt to make room for the plantations, “green deserts” containing virtually no biodiversity, on an area the size of New Zealand. Avoiding products containing palm oil or making sure it is sustainable, then, can also lessen our demands on the natural world.

But it is not just the food industries that are disturbing habitats. Our electronics also rely on a huge amount of natural resources, including conflict minerals. Conflict minerals are mined in the Democratic Republic of Congo and surrounding areas. Paramilitary groups fight for control of illicit mines, where grave human rights abuses including forced labour and child labour are commonplace and the money raised funds further violence, exploitation and corruption.

image: palm oil plantation

From deforestation to the release of toxic chemicals – mining can cause huge habitat loss. Illegal mining sites also create large settlements in sensitive, previously remote habitats, displacing and changing our relationship with the wildlife there.

The need to feed those working in mines also leads to an increase in bushmeat hunting. By buying second-hand electronics, we can ensure that we are not pushing human frontiers further into unknown ecosystems in the pursuit of these resources.

Reducing consumption

But the best thing of all to do is radically reduce our consumption. Each new purchase requires natural resources of some kind. If we can cut these down, and close the circle on economies through reuse, we can drastically shift our exploitative relationship with the natural world and the pandemic potential we may find there.

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