Intensive farming makes future pandemics such as COVID-19 more likely as wild animals carrying diseases known to infect humans are more and more forced into close contact with people, research showed Wednesday.
A team of researchers from the University College London (UCL) warned that animal pathogens are increasingly likely to transfer to people because of the way humans use land. The study was published in the journal Nature.
The United Nations (UN) estimates that three quarters of land on Earth has been severely abused by human activity since the start of the industrial era.
Land used for farming is expanding every year, often by sacrificing forests, home to wild animals that carry numerous diseases from which humans can fall ill.
Exploiting land might lead to future pandemics
The UCL team looked at more than 6,800 ecological communities from six continents and found that animals known to carry pathogens, such as bats, rodents and birds, are more common in landscapes intensively used by humans.
“The way humans change landscapes across the world, from natural forest to farmland, has consistent impacts on many wild animal species, causing some to decline while others persist or increase,” said Rory Gibb, from UCL’s Centre for Biodiversity and Environment Research.
Their findings show a clear need to change how we exploit land to reduce the risk of future pandemics. “Our findings show that the animals that remain in more human-dominated environments are more likely to carry infectious diseases that can make people sick.”
COVID-19, which has infected more than 18 million people and killed more than 700,000, is almost certain to have originated in animals before passing to and spreading among humans.
The novel coronavirus is just one of several deadly viruses that have made the leap from animals, which carry thousands of types of microbes that may be harmful to humans.
And as the disease reservoir gets squeezed ever tighter, the risk of leaks rises.
Research co-author David Redding said he hoped the study would change the way people think about sacrificing nature for food.
“I think it is important that we make a strong and persistent link between economically driven land-use change and indirect costs to local and global human populations, such as zoonotic disease outbreaks,” he said.
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