“There is a fundamental and often-overlooked connection between pandemics such as the current COVID-19 crisis and our animal-based food system,” claims a new report published today.

The Food & Pandemics Report, produced by plant-based advocacy group ProVeg International, identifies the eating and farming of animals as “the single most risky human behaviour in relation to pandemics”, and calls for urgent changes to the global food system in order to prevent future outbreaks. The report has drawn support from inside the UN Environment Programme (UNEP).

The report finds that dietary choices and the global food system are the key drivers of zoonoses (diseases such as COVID-19, which are transmitted from non-human animals to humans) in what it describes as “three clear and mutually reinforcing ways”:

1) Through the destruction of animals’ natural habitats and loss of biodiversity, driven largely by animal agriculture.

2) Through the use of wild animals as food.

3) Through the use of farmed animals as food in intensified animal agriculture.

About 75% of all emerging infectious diseases are zoonotic in nature. Zoonotic diseases, which include SARS, MERS, Ebola, rabies, and certain forms of influenza, are responsible for an estimated 2.5 billion cases of illness and 2.7 million deaths worldwide, every year.

Although the origins of such outbreaks are often associated with wild animals, as is assumed with COVID-19, pathogens also jump from wild animals to farmed animals before being transmitted to humans – as was the case with recent pandemic threats such as avian flu and swine flu.

Jens Tuider, international director of ProVeg International, and lead author of the report, said: “The recipe for disaster is surprisingly simple: one animal, one mutation, one human, and a single point of contact. We don’t yet know the full story about the emergence of COVID-19, but there is no uncertainty regarding swine flu and avian flu: those viruses evolved on factory farms, where conditions are perfect for the evolution and transmission of viruses, as well as for the development of antimicrobial resistance. Factory farms are perfect breeding grounds for future pandemics.

“There are so many reasons to move away from intensively farming animals – to tackle the climate crisis, to protect the environment, to combat antibiotic resistance, to protect our health, and for the welfare of animals. But mitigating the risk of the next pandemic, which could have an even more devastating impact than COVID-19, is perhaps the most persuasive reason of all. Science clearly supports this, but is there enough political will?”

The report also highlights the role of climate change in increasing the risk of future pandemics, and antimicrobial resistance – and exacerbating their impact. Both, it says, are driven by the global animal-based food system, the demand for which continues to grow rapidly.

Dr Musonda Mumba, chief of the Terrestrial Ecosystems Unit of the UNEP (UN Environment Programme), said: “The ProVeg report clearly demonstrates the connection between industrial animal production and the increased risk of pandemics. Never before have so many opportunities existed for pathogens to jump from wild and domestic animals to people.”

In response to the recent COVID-19 outbreaks at meat-processing plants around the world, which have seen closures in the UK, the US and Germany, she added: “We have also seen in the last few months how industrial animal-production spaces have been spaces for the spread of COVID-19. Clearly this provides another opportunity for a rethink of our food systems as they relate to pandemics.”