We have all heard terrifying information about how much the human race has impacted the natural world and caused the extinction of millions of animals - the UN estimates that 1 million animal species are now at risk of extinction. However, now it seems that these destructive habits have come back to bite us. Scientists have suggested that disease outbreaks, such as the current Covid-19 pandemic, stem from humans’ destructive relationship with the natural world.


Through our agricultural practices and the illegal wildlife trade, humans have increased our exposure to wild animals and the many viruses they carry. Deforestation is a huge factor: large swathes of the Amazon rainforest are being cut down in order to clear space for cattle ranching and growing animal feed. Chopping down and burning forests brings wildlife into closer contact with people, exposing us to the infectious and possibly deadly diseases they carry. 


Factory farming also contributes to this, as rearing animals in close proximity creates ideal conditions for diseases to spread, both between animals and to humans. The passing of an infection or disease from a vertebrate animal to a human is known as a “zoonosis” and it is extremely common - Greenpeace states that “three quarters of new diseases affecting humans come from animals”.


While this is worrying, time has not yet run out. We still have the opportunity to change the course that we are on and prevent future pandemics. Scientists fear that soon, 5 new diseases could emerge per year, and if even one causes a pandemic like the one we are currently experiencing, it could spell disaster for public health and for our economy. 


One way of combating this is to start dramatically cutting our consumption of meat and dairy products, as the ways that these are produced evidently have a huge negative impact on the environment. Greenpeace reports that “If everyone ate a plant-based diet, we’d need 75% less farmland than we use today. That’s an area equivalent to the US, China, Europe and Australia combined.” 


It can be difficult for some people to eliminate meat from their diet completely, as eating meat is such an ingrained part of lots of people’s daily lives. But taking small steps, such as eating more vegetarian or vegan meals as alternatives to meat, can also make a huge difference. For example, the “Meat-Free Monday” movement encourages people to not eat meat on Mondays and has gained popularity around the world. There has also been a huge boom in vegetarian cookbooks and blogs, which make eating less meat both more accessible and more delicious than it was not long ago. 


We are living in unprecedented times, but there is no guarantee that similar situations will not arise in the future. Taking small steps to decrease our carbon footprints not only impact the future of the planet but may also help prevent emerging diseases from taking hold.