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Fixing our global agricultural system to prevent the next COVID-19


First Published June 5, 2020 Research Article


While the world’s attention is focused on controlling COVID-19, evidence points at the biodiversity crisis as a leading factor in its emergence, and the outbreak of many past emerging infectious diseases. Agriculture is a major driver of biodiversity loss globally. Feeding a growing human population in ways that minimize harm to biodiversity is thus imperative to prevent the next COVID-19. Solutions exist, but the burden of implementing them should not be left to farmers alone, who are mainly small-scale family farmers. Supportive policies and markets are needed, but unlikely to bring about the required changes alone. A global concerted effort similar to the Paris Agreement for climate is probably required.


Infectious diseases are caused by pathogenic microorganisms, such as bacteria, viruses, parasites or fungi (Anderson et al., 1991). The most recent, COVID-19, is caused by the SARS-CoV-2, a virus that belongs to the Coronaviridae family, and has spread across the globe in about 2 months from its origin in China, infecting people and claiming lives at an exponential rate, and leading to measures that are disrupting the global economy in an attempt to contain it (Hellewell et al., 2020McKibbin and Fernando, 2020Ramelli and Wagner, 2020Sohrabi et al., 2020). Outbreaks of infectious diseases are on the rise (Smith et al., 2014). Most are zoonotic (60% of 335 infectious disease outbreaks that occurred between 1940 and 2004), meaning that they are spread from animals to humans, and the majority of these zoonoses (72% of the zoonoses that occurred between 1940 and 2004) originates from wildlife (Jones et al., 2008). COVID-19 is just the last in a long list of zoonoses originating from wildlife species (Zhou et al., 2020). In the past 20 years only, humanity was hit by three coronaviruses (SARS-CoV-1, 2003, Li et al., 2005; MERS-CoV, 2012, Zumla et al., 2015, SARS-CoV-2, 2019, Sohrabi et al., 2020), one influenza virus (Swine flu, 2009, Borkenhagen et al., 2019), two arboviruses (Chikungunya virus, 2005Sam et al., 2015; Zika virus, 2015, Metsky et al., 2017) and one filovirus (Ebola virus, 2014 and 2018, Bourgarel and Liégeois, 2019). When in 2017, it was demonstrated that SARS-CoV-1 may have emerged through recombination among different virus strains in a single bat population in a cave in Southern China, the authors of the paper warned that “the risk of spillover into people and emergence of a disease similar to SARS is possible” (Hu et al., 2017). This indeed reads like a forecast of SARS-CoV-2 and the current COVID-19 pandemic….

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