COVID-19, Cellular Agriculture, and the Future of Safe Food

COVID-19, Cellular Agriculture, and the Future of Safe Food

By the Future Fields team(Dr.Matthew Anderson-Baron, Jalene Anderson-Baron, Dr.Chris Fetterly, and Lejjy Gafour)

This article was also posted on our Medium channel: https://medium.com/@futurefields

As of March 19, 2020, the World Health Organization is reporting 207,855 confirmed cases of COVID-19, and close to 9000 deaths globally. Countries around the world have implemented stringent measures to slow transmission of the virus, from social distancing to complete national lockdowns. Globally, people are abstaining from social activities and entertainment, schools have shut down, health systems are struggling to adapt, and businesses have been forced to close, leaving many people abruptly without income. These significant interruptions to everyday life, and their intense social, economic and health consequences, have largely overshadowed the source of this disease. COVID-19, like many pandemics before it, has zoonotic origins. It was transmitted to humans from an animal source. It is not the first zoonotic disease and it certainly won’t be the last — unless we acknowledge and address the root of the problem. Current global efforts to slow the progress of COVID-19 remain incredibly important, but as we emerge from this pandemic, we must endeavour to prevent such diseases from transmitting to humans in the first place.

COVID-19 and the Human-Animal Interface

The majority of infectious diseases in humans have originated at the human-animal interface, whereby the transmission of microorganisms from animals to humans occurs [1,2]. The first clinical diagnosis of AIDS was reported in 1981, resulting from the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV). It is believed HIV originated with the introduction of the Simian Immunodeficiency Virus (SIV) into the human population, caused by the hunting and consumption of wild nonhuman primates in West Central Africa [3]. One study showed that humans who regularly participate in bushmeat activities commonly carry SIV [4]. In addition, given our phylogenetic proximity with chimpanzees, humans are particularly susceptible to the emergence of HIV in human populations. Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) is believed to have originated in bat species and was introduced into the human population through intermediate hosts in wet markets in southern China [5]. Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) was first discovered in humans in 2012 in Saudi Arabia. Evidence suggests the virus originated in bats and later spread to camels, which was transmitted to humans through camel meat and camel milk [6]. Along with HIV, SARS, and MERS, swine influenza, avian influenza, and bovine spongiform encephalopathy (mad cow disease) are all zoonotic diseases that have emerged in human populations due to animal consumption.

While many unknown factors influence trans-species zoonotic transmission, the common element is the human-animal interface. The nature and frequency of the human-animal interaction significantly influences the human pathogenicity — repeat exposure to a particular zoonotic agent is certainly required for human transmission and disease emergence. Time and time again, the human-animal interface proves to be critical in the emergence of human diseases and the global trade of animals significantly contributes to the transmission and spread of zoonotic diseases [7]. “As we increase our interactions with animals through hunting, the trading of animal foods, animal husbandry practices, wet markets, and the domestication of animals/exotic pets, the probability of cross-species transmission dramatically increases” [8].

COVID-19: A New Zoonotic Threat

Now, in the first few months of 2020, we are living through another global pandemic resulting from a zoonotic agent transmitted to humans at the human-animal interface. While the origin has yet to be confirmed, early research indicates that COVID-19 originated in the wet markets of Wuhan, China, where animals are killed on-site for consumption. Given its similarity to many known bat viruses, it appears to have originated in bats and was subsequently transmitted at one of the aforementioned wet markets. Given that bats are not sold at the particular Wuhan market believed to be the origin, it was likely transmitted to an intermediate host. While speculation remains as to its origin of human transmission, its emergence as a human disease is strongly tied to the human-animal interface.

Since the virus began to spread throughout mainland China in late December 2019, it has now been detected in over 100 countries worldwide. In March 2020, the World Health Organization declared the COVID-19 crisis a global pandemic. While critical measures have been implemented to slow the spread, experts predict the situation will continue to worsen before there is improvement. Pandemics are addressed after they have spread globally — the wait and see approach. However, decades have passed since the emergence of HIV without an effective vaccine, suggesting this approach is not effective. We must implement measures to prevent these occurrences, rather than addressing consequences after the crisis hits. Looking forward, it is critical to consider novel methods that will reduce the likelihood of zoonotic disease emergence. One promising method is the production of animal products through cellular agriculture.

Cellular Agriculture: Providing Safe Protein for the Planet

Cellular agriculture is the process of producing animal products by culturing animal cells. Traditional agriculture products, such as milk or meat, can be produced using laboratory techniques without the need to raise and slaughter an animal. With cellular agriculture practices, any type of animal product imaginable can be created. This technology decouples food production from land use, bypassing many of the challenges associated with intensive farming practices. It has the potential to greatly reduce greenhouse gas emissions, improve food security and most importantly, reduce transmission of animal-borne diseases. With cellular agriculture, the human-animal interface is reduced, as animal products can be created without the need for animal husbandry. This encompasses any animal product, meaning sources of zoonotic agents, such as those attributed to COVID-19, are removed. The more we reduce, or at least control, the human-animal interface, the more we decrease the likelihood of future zoonosis.

Other factors associated with animal agriculture (particularly intensive farming practices, such as concentrated animal feeding operations) contribute to zoonotic transmission. Deforestation and climate change are thought to have caused the 1998 Nipah viral outbreak in Malaysia, which was transmitted from bats to livestock as the bat population was driven out of their native habitat [9]. In the Congo Basin and Rift Valley, studies have demonstrated that the loss of biodiversity and deforestation have significantly increased the risk of zoonotic transmission to humans [10]. Deforestation is a direct consequence of animal agriculture as more and more farmland is required to grow crops for animal feed. Cellular agriculture reduces deforestation as the production practices are decoupled from land-use.

While intensive animal agriculture practices are certainly problematic, it is important to consider the socio-economic factors that influence the transmission of zoonotic diseases. Food insecurity and lack of adequate protein sources, often linked to conflict or poverty, are a common driver of bushmeat hunting [11,12]. As we have seen in many cases, practices like this contribute to disease emergence. Cellular agriculture has immense potential to address food insecurity and provide a more stable and sustainable source of nutrition. With adequate protein sources, we can reduce the need for bushmeat hunting and other practices that leave us susceptible to zoonotic disease emergence.

A New Path Forward

The COVID-19 crisis is a stark reminder of how fragile the human ecosystem is. It reminds us to pause and consider how the collective human lifestyle is constantly teetering on the brink of disaster. But, as we have seen over the course of history, if nothing else — humans are resilient. Just as we recovered from previous pandemics, so too will we recover from this one. We must continue to support innovative technologies that will ensure future populations can avoid enduring another crisis like COVID-19. Cellular agriculture is certainly not the only answer, but it may be the most tangible, offering pragmatic and timely solutions to the shortcomings of our current food production system. This novel industry can significantly reduce the likelihood of another COVID-19 pandemic. So now, more than ever, we must support the collective efforts of the cellular agriculture industry and the brilliant minds working towards improving the well-being of the planet and its inhabitants. At Future Fields, we are relentlessly working with our customers to revolutionize the future of food — a future where safe, affordable, and sustainable food production exists with minimal use of land and animals. Ultimately, a future in which the human-animal interface is no longer a threat to global survival, but an opportunity for global food security.

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