Banning the Sale of Wild Meat Might Actually Make Pandemics More Likely

Conservationists have advocated a ban to prevent future pandemics and protect biodiversity. A new study suggests it might do the exact opposite.
March 1, 2021, 5:09pm
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“Our world has been forever changed,” reads the dramatic text beneath a photo of a bush baby locked in a cage. “We have shuttered our homes, shuttered our businesses, lost our jobs, toppled the global economy [and] watched our loved ones get sick and die.”

Luckily, as the #EndTheTrade petition website assures readers, there’s a simple step that will “help ensure this never happens again” – a ban on the sale of wildlife as food.

Ever since the suspected origins of the pandemic first emerged last March, the bad jokes about bats and pangolins have been accompanied by serious calls to end the sale of wild animals for human consumption. But new research by a cross-disciplinary group of conservation scientists from the University of Oxford suggests that far from solving the problem, a ban may actually make things worse, exacerbating the public health risks and driving as many as 267 species to extinction.

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These seemingly counterintuitive findings, published earlier this month in the peer-reviewed journal Current Biology, are based on a detailed analysis of food systems in 83 countries where wild meat is consumed, including the UK and US, as well as China and several South American and sub-Saharan African nations.

“We took available data about meat consumption in various countries, and we estimated the nutrition people currently get from wild meat,” explains Hollie Booth, the lead author of the study. “[Then] we estimated how much extra animal agriculture would be required to replace the lost protein.”

Based on the current shares of beef, pork, chicken etc raised and consumed in each country, they also looked at what the likely mix of livestock replacements would be, and how much land you would need to farm them.

Overall, the study found that 123,980km² of new agricultural land would be needed to replace wild meat with protein from domestic livestock, an area almost the size of Greece. In nine of the countries they considered, including the US, Nigeria and Brazil, the scientists estimated that over 5,000km² of new land would have to be given over to farming.

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These changes would have a disastrous impact on biodiversity, Booth says: “Because different types of species are associated with different types of land, you can estimate how many species will be threatened with extinction as a result of that conversion,” which is how she and the team arrived at the figure of 267 species which could find themselves at risk.

A blanket ban on the sale of wildlife for food would not just endanger more species and damage wider conservation efforts, according to the research, it could also increase the risk of future pandemics. While it’s true that many of the infectious diseases that have come from animals – including SARS, Ebola and COVID-19 – have originated in wild species, they’re frequently transmitted to domesticated species first, before then infecting humans.

“In all of human history, if you look at all the emerging infectious diseases, the vast majority have taken place in agricultural systems,” says Booth. If wildlife habitats are converted into farmland, and agricultural frontiers are pushed further into forested areas, she explains, “it creates this perfect storm – humans, wildlife and livestock all interacting in situations where pathogens are more likely to jump”.

Booth and her 19 co-authors have decades of experience working on issues around the wildlife trade, and they felt like the calls they were seeing from advocacy groups following the COVID-19 outbreak were at best misguided, but at worst potentially dangerous. “It seemed obvious that if you ban the wildlife trade there’s going to be unintended consequences,” she says. Many of the campaigns appeared to be “based on philosophical and values-based arguments – these feelings that the wildlife trade is ‘bad’ and we should stop it”. In place of these vague, wishy-washy assertions, she and the team felt that “we needed something more robust. We needed some data.”

As well as their suspicions about the scientific basis for a ban, the multinational, multi-ethnic research team also objected to what Booth calls the “problematic narratives” being pushed by some conservation groups: “With a lot of these calls for banning wildlife trade, there was a real ‘othering’ issue. They were coming from British and American people who think about wild meat as this weird thing that people in Africa and China do.”

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Perhaps unsurprisingly, given their conclusions, the research hasn’t been universally well-received in conservation circles. Dr Susan Lieberman is the Vice President of International Policy for the World Conservation Society (WCS), a 125-year-old New York-based NGO that runs the city’s most famous zoos. The organisation has had to reckon publicly with its own deeply problematic and shockingly racist past recently, but its modern iteration is widely respected, conducting extensive research from field offices around the world.

“I’m happy to share what I think of the paper, honestly,” says Dr Lieberman when I ask her about the Oxford team’s new research over Zoom. While conceding that “their data are probably OK”, she rejects the team’s conclusions. The WCS is listed as an endorser of the #EndTheTrade campaign, and Dr Lieberman explains that their policy position, set out last March, remains unchanged.

While exempting communities who hunt wild meat for subsistence purposes, they continue to call for a ban on commercial trade and commercial markets. “We don’t want to say only in Asia,” Lieberman says, “because there are big markets in Brazzaville and Kinshasa, and there are big markets like that in Lagos and in Brazil and in Peru, and they’re all a health risk.”

She also rejects the idea that a species by species approach to regulation – advocated by Booth and her colleagues in a follow-up paper – might work. Lieberman argues that anything short of a blanket ban on commercial sales risks letting undiscovered emerging infectious diseases through the cracks. “If you only focus when you know there’s a risk, you're gonna miss the next one,” she says.

Yet Lieberman also concedes that some of the potential sources of protein that might replace wild meat could damage biodiversity. “You’re right, cattle is a disaster – an ecological scourge on this planet,” she says. Both she and Booth agree that certain kinds of animals, including bats and apes, should probably never be eaten, because of the proven public health risks. They also agree that the world as a whole needs to consume less meat, regardless of whether it’s from wild or domesticated sources. Where they disagree is on the best way to get there.

Booth says she can understand the calls for a blanket ban: “I’m vegetarian, I don’t want to be involved in the wildlife trade [and], morally, I understand why people feel that way.” But her research suggests that commercially traded wild meat could and should continue to play a role in ensuring that the transition to a lower-meat future is managed equitably and fairly.

After all, she points out, “a lot of these environmental issues are because of over-consumption in Western countries. If we were really concerned about biodiversity and public health, we should do something about what we eat and how it’s produced.” 

@tris_kennedy