In September 2019—two months before the first reported case of the coronavirus—the World Health Organization published a report that said, “…there is a very real threat of a rapidly moving, highly lethal pandemic of a respiratory pathogen killing 50 to 80 million people and wiping out nearly 5 percent of the world’s economy… The world is not prepared.”
We may never be fully prepared for a black swan event like this. But even our best response to a global pandemic is just that: a response to something that is already happened. It doesn’t do anything to prevent another pandemic disease from emerging in the future.
So what would it take to minimize the risk of another virus like SARS-CoV-2 from ravaging the world?
Where did the new coronavirus come from?
To understand how pandemics emerge, let’s take a look at the origin of SARS-CoV-2, the name of the coronavirus that causes the COVID-19 flu.
It is recognized that close contact between humans and food animals have resulted in the transmission of many microbes from animals to humans, with SARS and avian influenza being two primary examples. In particular, Chinese “wet markets”—complexes of stalls selling fish, meat, and wild animals—are “unique epicenters” for transmitting potential viral pathogens. And all patients who came down with COVID-19 at the end of December had connections to the Huanan Seafood Market in Wuhan, China, according to NPR.
It’s called a “wet market” because the blood and remains of slaughtered animals run together with melting ice to make the floors wet. Wet, bloody floors are not the source of coronavirus, however. Instead, it is thought that the stress of captivity and being brought to market weakens animals’ immune systems, which in turn creates an environment where mutating viruses can slip from one species to another. When that happens, a new strain of a virus can occasionally get a foothold in humans.
People wearing protective face masks shop at a chicken stall at a wet market in Shanghai on February 13, 2020. Wet markets are a place where stressed and diseased animals can exchange pathogens. AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES
Some have proposed key steps to helping reduce the risk of a future epidemic similar to that caused by the novel coronavirus 2019-nCoV, such as better monitoring of wildlife for high-risk pathogens, monitoring people at high-risk who are in contact with wildlife, and better regulation of the wildlife trade and animal markets. If enacted, these steps may help in wet markets, which are beginning to be evaluated and in some cases shut down.
But conditions on some large-scale farms may lead to similar outcomes.
Does large-scale farming contribute to human disease?
First, I want to appreciate what farmers do—they feed the world. The vast majority of farms are family owned, and farmers care deeply about the animals they tend to. The term “factory farm”, which is often used by people wanting to paint agriculture in a negative light, is offensive to farmers.
That said, modern farming is not without its problems. The animals in large-scale farms are oftentimes diseased, infected, and closely packed together providing a perfect breeding ground for viruses to move from a weakened host to a human.
These farms have animals packed in dense, high-population chambers with poor sanitation, and diets supplemented with antibiotics. Animal waste produced from this rich antibiotic, non-edible products pollute waterways used for crop irrigation. The bacteria and viruses spread into our crops and consumed meat. In fact, three-fourths of human emerging diseases have emerged in part from such zoonotic pathogens, including swine fever, mad cow disease, ebola virus, hantaviruses, nipah virus, and avian influenza.
Based on the evidence, the conditions in wet markets and some large-scale farms increase the chances of a pandemic. It isn’t the act of eating meat that causes pandemics; it is the conditions in which we put animals in captivity and slaughter them that leads to disease.
What steps can we take?
An extreme measure we could take to mitigate the conditions that lead to zoonotic pathogens would be to ban meat consumption. But meat is part of many peoples’ culture. In some areas, a meat diet can be more cost-effective than a vegan one. And a lot of us simply love the taste of meat. Politically and socially, this seems very unlikely.
Another approach could be improving the conditions of factory farms. This would be costly for farms, increasing the amount of land needed, the time it takes to produce meat, and the overall cost to consumers. All of this at a time when the demand for meat is only increasing. As the world’s middle class grows, demand for meat is expected to nearly double by 2050, If anything, farms are likely to get bigger and more numerous, particularly in the developing word—and conditions more dubious.
If only there was a way to make products that taste like meat and are cost-effective, without needing to depend on livestock…
Enter a new age of fermentation
With recent advancements in technology, there is a way to enjoy “meat” without the animal. Fermentation is the age-old process of using cultures to convert sugar into food. It’s how we make bread, wine, cheese, and beer. Applying the latest advances in synthetic biology to fermentation, we can make food that is more nutritious, far more sustainable, better tasting, and with almost limitless variety, compared to conventional farming.
In a Facebook Live podcast I hosted in March with Ryan Bethencourt, the founder of Wild Earth and IndieBio, Ryan predicted that “the majority of U.S. beef and dairy farms will be gone by 2035 because of advancements in agriculture.” Ryan cited a report from a think tank that shaped his beliefs on how industrial animal farming will be profoundly disrupted by fermentation biology.
According to the report, the production of biology-based proteins via fermentation will be 10 times cheaper than any other animal based protein by 2035. Using programmable biology, researchers can use fermentation to produce proteins that mimic the exact taste and texture of the meat, at a fraction of the costs. This has massive effects for the global economy and factory farmers.
Currently, the beef and dairy markets are a combined $400 billion industry. At the current pace of advancements in fermentation, the ground beef market could be 70% smaller by 2030, and the factory farming industry could lose 600,000 jobs. Fortunately, the U.S. fermentation industry could create a total of 700,000 jobs.
The transition to a more sustainable form of agriculture seems not only economically and environmentally wise, but also inevitable. The timeframe to transition to a fresher, healthier, cheaper, environmentally safer alternative is dependent on consumers’ openness and willingness to adapt to newer options. In the meat marketplace, the growing demand for meat along with the difficulty in scaling large farms signals for a sustainable alternative. Without change, conditions will not improve, further polluting our environment and remaining a breeding ground for emerging diseases.
New choices for consumers
A number of companies are now offering tasty, environmentally friendly alternatives to consumers. Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods have developed alternative burger patties that are sold at Costco, Burger King, and major stores. The US non-dairy market now makes up 15 percent of the overall dairy market with impressive year to year growth. Even pet food is being disrupted. Ryan Bethencourt’s company Wild Earth produces plant-based dog food.
“Thirty percent of the global meat supply produced goes to our pets,” Ryan told me. “Unlike human meat guidelines, pet food can contain animals with any of the four Ds: disease, dying, dead, and disabled. Some dog foods contain pig ears as the main source of protein. What we are feeding our pets is not nutritious nor sustainable.”
On the podcast, Ryan mentioned how massive food companies are now embracing plant-based foods as the future. He said he met the chairman of Nestle at a previous IndieBio event, who told him that “Nestle is going all in on the plant based revolution — that is the global mega trend that we are betting on.”
As a society, we need to be more open-minded to try alternatives and understand the impact our current choices have on the environment and emerging diseases. We must support sustainable methods in developing safer meat products. It may not be time to move past meat altogether, but it is time to bring alternatives to the market so that consumers can make choices that better reflect their values. Rather than getting rid of meat, it is time to produce it cheaper, environmentally safer, and pandemic-free.
Follow me on Twitter at @johncumbers and @synbiobeta. Subscribe to my weekly newsletters in synthetic biology. Thank you to Vinit Parekh for additional research and reporting in this article. I’m the founder of SynBioBeta, and some of the companies that I write about are sponsors of the SynBioBeta conference and weekly digest. Here’s the full list of SynBioBeta sponsors.
Originally published on Forbes: https://www.forbes.com/sites/johncumbers/2020/05/09/preventing-another-pandemic-might-be-as-simple-as-trying-alternative-meat/1