The COVID-19 outbreak has exposed the need for both an immediate pandemic response and future risk mitigation. It is clear that our relationship to natural ecosystems, especially in regard to food production, will be essential in future pandemic prevention.
Research suggests that the 2019 coronavirus could originate from bats, highlighting a high potential for zoonosis, a disease that is transmitted from animals to humans. Nearly 3/4 of emerging infectious diseases (EIDs), and almost all recent pandemics originate in animals (Sars, bird flu, swine flu, Mers, Ebola). It is estimated that, globally, one billion cases and millions of deaths occur annually from zoonoses and future pandemics could arise as we continue to encroach on our ecosystems.
The challenge of preventing EIDs is grounded in the relationship between humans, animals, and the environment. Unsustainable practices in food production have led to large-scale modifications and degradation of natural habitats, including an immense loss of biodiversity and animal life. Around 60% of terrestrial and aquatic life have been lost over the past 50 years. EIDs are also driven by deforestation, land-use change, intensification of livestock production and agriculture, and increased hunting and trading of wildlife.
The transmission of these EIDs require contact, the probability increasing with human population and animal density. One consequence of unsustainable food production practices is that a wide variety of species are being forced to live in close contact with each other, increasing the potential for disease to spill-over. This increases the potential for the emergence, circulation, and sustenance of new infectious agents into human communities either directly from livestock/wildlife or from an intermediate livestock host.
In order to safeguard for future pandemics, we will need to consider health through a broader and more holistic lens, one that recognizes the connection between the health of people, animals, plants, and environments. The term “One Health” reflects the interconnectedness of human health, animal health, and environmental ecosystems and seeks to bring together multidisciplinary expertise at the interface of these often disparate fields. In doing so, we can help prevent future pandemic risks and improve the health of all people, plants, wildlife, livestock, fish, and environments.
All this being said, COVID-19 has highlighted the fact that human health is inextricably linked with environmental sustainability. Moving forward, we will need to focus more on sustainable development for human disease prevention, specifically in regard to developing more sustainable food production practices. KIN’s new food sustainability curriculum discusses these important issues, prompting students to think about the linkages between human, animal, and ecological systems.
It is imperative that we begin to teach and emphasize the relationship between our actions and the world around us to kickstart a movement that can help mitigate the negative effects we have inflicted on both the environment AND ourselves.