An important debate has emerged, on the left, in response to China’s proposed ban on the wildlife trade in its so-called wet markets – following the role this trade is suspected to have played in the spillover of Covid-19, from animal hosts to humans, writes Alan Thornett.
The proposal to ban this trade, which is expected to be enacted soon, came after an international campaign by nature conservation organisations, supported by a group of Chinese scientists who wrote an open letter to the government, calling for it.
This proposition marks a sharp change in China’s attitude to this trade since the SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) outbreak in 2003 – also a of a corona virus spillover from animals to humans – after which the trade was allowed to continue.
The move was strongly welcomed – rightly in my view – on March 16, in an article in the Washington Post, by the American geographer, historian, anthropologist and science writer Jared Diamond – the author of “Guns, Germs, and Steel – a short history of everybody for the last 13,000 years” and much more – and top American virologist and epidemiologist Nathan Wolfe.
They pointed out that since the widespread failure to learn the lessons of SARS in 2004, we have to make sure that we do not make the same mistake again. They recognise that wildlife markets exist in other countries besides China but argue that “Chinese markets are especially efficient for launching epidemics because China has the world’s largest human population and is increasingly connected by cars, planes and high-speed trains”. (1)
Remarkably – to me anyway – many on the left oppose this ban, and are prepared to see these practices to continue. This position is expressed in an article entitled Overselling Wildlife Trade Bans Will Not Bolster Conservation or Pandemic Preparedness, by Evan A. Eskew and Colin J. Carlson – published on Ian Angus’s website Climate and Capitalism. They oppose the ban on the basis that that pandemics of deadly pathogens are now inevitable and that bans on wildlife trade would distract from the (real) task of strengthening healthcare systems. In my view we have to do both.
They also claim that the ban is disrespect to Chinese culture. Diamond and Wolfe recognise that wildlife consumption has a cultural basis in China, but argue that the global threat from corona viruses is too great for this trade to continue. (see here)
Ian Angus has written a supportive introduction to the article that makes a comparison with his local supermarket in Canada.
“The supermarket where I shop, a small-town branch of a national grocery chain, sells live lobsters, ready to be boiled and eaten. No one blinks an eye when they pass the tank. I have yet to hear anyone call for a ban on that wet market, or for outlawing that Canadian trade in live wild animals. And yet pop science writer Jared Diamond, writing in The Washington Post, thinks it is okay, indeed essential, to demand that China outlaw the sale of wild animals.”
He concludes by asking whether the difference (between Chinese wet markets and Canadian lobsters) “could have anything to do with racism?”
Personally, I am horrified at the thought of boiling a lobster alive and would like to see the practice banned – but the comparison is ridiculous. The wild animal markets in question operate at a completely different order of magnitude. They trade multiple species including bats, turtles, snakes, hedgehogs, marmots, foxes, wolf cubs, monkeys and pangolins that are held in appalling conditions. (The term “wet markets” by the way is confusing because it includes many markets that do not trade in wild animals).
Whilst this trade maybe most acute in China and Southeast Asia, it feeds a global market with trade routes stretching around the world. In Africa animals such as elephants, rhinos, leopards, and lions are traded both domestically and internationally for numerous purposes. In Latin America a variety of rainforest animals are sold openly as meat and is one of the main reasons why many species are facing extinction. A staggering 100,000,000 sharks a year are slaughtered for shark’s fin soup – also a cultural practice – with most of them thrown back alive with their fins sliced off.
The ban, of course won’t solve everything – which is the usual response – and it may well be widely ignored, but it is a step in the right direction that can be built on.
Unsurprisingly most environmentalists and animal protection organisations support the Chinese ban. Ben Williamson, programs director of World Animal Protection US told The Independent that the organisation was “not opposed to wet markets in principle. However, we are opposed to markets selling live wild animals and wild animal products”.
David Quammen the author of Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic told the paper that “What we need to do is get a handle on the multi-billion dollar international trade in wild animals taken from wild habitats for food and often shipped from one country to another.” The trade in wildlife is estimated to be worth up to $20bn per year, according to Interpol and the UN Environment Programme.
Destructive as it is, of course, the wildlife trade is not the principal culprit when it comes to environmental destruction. That accolade goes to intensified and industrialised agriculture – in particular to intensified meat production.
Today, 70 billion domesticated animals are slaughtered every year for human consumption. They also face appalling conditions; that also create the conditions for zoonotic transmission. This trade has doubled in the last 50 years, and is set to double again by 2050. Two-thirds of these animals are reared by intensive methods.
The run-off from the production of feed for these animals is poisoning the oceans. Livestock production is also key to deforestation, especially in Latin America where the most deforestation is occurring. Seventy per cent of previously forested land in the Amazon is now pasture for grazing. Feed crops for the animals cover a large part of the remainder.
The existence of a greater evil, however, does not absolve us from raising the issue of the wildlife trade which is a major and unacceptable threat to the environment of the planet in its own right. It means that these are multiple aspects of a global threat to the planet and we have to take them all seriously.
Ecosocialists should oppose this trade whether it is legal or illegal and whenever and wherever it is found. This is not just because these practices open the door to dangerous pathogens, and compound the biodiversity crisis, but because, these practices stands in direct contradiction to the new relationship between human beings and nature that is central to the future of this planet as a liveable space.
The real problem is that the ban does not go far enough. It does not cover, for example, the wholesale slaughter of wild animals for use in traditional medicines for which there is no scientific basis. For example, the use of pangolin scales, tiger parts, and rhino horns for supposed ‘medical’ purposes. Rhino poaching to fuel to demand for the illegal rhino horn trade reached an all-time high in 2011, with 448 rhinos poached in South Africa alone.
As long as we continue to pile pressure on nature with these kind of practices the greater will be the backlash in the form of pandemics of deadly pathogens. The wild animal trade (as distinct from subsistence hunting) should be banned along with industrialised meat production if we are to start to put together a solution to all this.
Diamond and Wolfe conclude their article by telling us:
“The next virus after Covid-19 could do much more damage. The connectivity of the world’s populations continues to grow. There’s no good biological reason future epidemics wouldn’t kill hundreds of millions and drive the planet into an unprecedented, decades-long depression.
Such a risk would be greatly reduced by ending the trade in wild animals. That wouldn’t just be a case of the Chinese government doing a favour for the rest of the world. It would especially benefit the Chinese people themselves — because, as with Covid-19, they are likely to be the first victims of the next virus emerging from the wild animal trade.”