This article was originally published on The Conversation.
After several early cases of COVID-19 were linked to a wet market in China, wildlife trade became central to discussions about links between public health and nature.
Some groups called for complete bans on consumption and trade of wildlife, with some governments, like China and Vietnam, acting decisively to introduce large-scale prohibitions.
The pandemic has brought humanity’s strained relationship with nature into sharp focus. It’s drawn public attention to links between environmental and human health, and led to calls for a “green recovery” that puts the environment at the heart of post-pandemic stimulus packages.
But the more pervasive environmental and health risks from animal agriculture – which would likely replace wild meat – have received little attention. My colleagues and I conducted a study to investigate the risks of removing wild meat from global food systems.Our results indicate that large-scale prohibitions on wildlife use could have negative consequences for nature and human health.
While some wildlife trade drives biodiversity loss and increases risks from emerging infectious diseases (EIDs), these pale in comparison to the impacts of animal agriculture.
Wildlife trade has been implicated in deadly disease outbreaks such as ebola and SARS, with primates, bats and carnivores being high-risk species. But global analyses of EID events show that land-use changes, especially for agriculture, are the most significant drivers of zoonotic outbreaks, with more than half of zoonotic EIDs associated with agricultural expansion and intensification.
Human expansion into natural areas carries a greater risk of diseases crossing from wildlife into livestock or people, because of a greater proximity between the two. Most zoonoses – pathogens that spread between animals and people -– are transmitted through livestock, and declines in diverse natural ecosystems help the spread of these pathogens. Modern intensive animal production creates perfect conditions for development of virulent strains with pandemic potential, such as animal influenzas like “bird flu” and “swine flu”.
While roughly 3,000 species are threatened by direct exploitation, like hunting and fishing, wildlife trade is not ubiquitously bad. Some forms of well-managed wildlife trade can be beneficial for nature. Bighorn sheep in Mexico and crocodiles in Australia are two examples of this. In some cases, like wild deer in the UK, wildlife trade can be a fundamental part of ecosystem management.
On the other hand, habitat destruction and degradation, driven by agricultural expansion, is the greatest threat to wild species globally. Over 13,000 speciesare currently threatened by agricultural land clearing and degradation alone, with future global food production on course to drive huge wildlife losses by 2050.