The vast majority of epidemics over the past century have been caused by tampering with both farmed and wild animals and their habitats (Picture: Direct Action Everywhere/Getty)

The UK needs to drastically cut back its meat intake to avoid a future global health crisis, a group of doctors have warned.

Plant Based Health Professionals (PBHP) say the connection between major disease outbreaks and factory farming is being ‘swept under the carpet’ amid the coronavirus pandemic, as they join a wave of experts urging people to go vegan.

The virus has brought the world’s attention to the illegal wildlife trade, thought to be behind the spread of Covid-19. Scientists believe the bug jumped to humans from bats via an animal host – possibly the pangolin – with early cases related to a wet market in Wuhan, China, where dead and live exotic animals were being sold.

The former coronavirus epicentre introduced a law against the breeding, hunting and consumption of wild animals this week amid mounting global pressure. While that is a welcome step, UK doctors say the exploitation of disease-prone animals is not just a problem for China.

The vast majority of new infectious diseases that have appeared in humans over the past century have been caused by tampering with farmed animals and their habitats, including Swine Flu (pigs), Avian Flu (birds) and Spanish Flu (poultry).

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Speaking to, Founder of PBHP and Consultant Haematologist at King’s College Hospital, Dr Shireen Kassam, said that another disease outbreak was inevitable if we do not move towards a plant-based diet.

In the UK, demand for cheap meat has fuelled a huge expansion of factory farming – a controversial process that often sees thousands of animals being packed into small, unsanitary cages.

This ‘provides the perfect conditions for the generation of novel infections with epidemic and pandemic potential’ Dr Kassam said, as well as necessitating the widespread use of antibiotics in animals, ‘contributing to a crisis in antibiotic resistance among humans.’

She told this news site: ‘The last 100 years has shown that pandemics will continue unless we change the way we eat and how our food is produced.

‘Disease is spread predominantly through confinement, we don’t have the land capacity to feed the 8 billion people on this planet free range.

‘We are in this race to find an antiviral, but other than HIV, there’s very few viruses where there is very effective drugs available. [A vaccine] isn’t just going to save our problems, there’s a risk of a mutation that could come back in a few years.

‘We need to learn from our mistakes. We need to change our land use to grow beans and legumes, we need a system change.’

This image shows the grim reality of a ‘free range’ chicken farm in Sussex that was investigated by the RSPCA in January (Picture: Direct Action Everywhere)

Poor diets are the main cause of chronic health conditions in adults in the UK, while pre-existing health conditions, such as obesity and diabetes, are seen as risk factors in catching Covid-19.

Ending factory farming would not only reduce the threat of another outbreak but improve overall public health, taking the strain off the ‘already swamped’ NHS in the event of a future pandemic, Dr Kassam said.

The Lifestyle Medicine Physician said it was a ‘prevailing myth’ that meat and dairy is needed for protein, citing a growing body of evidence that shows a balanced vegan diet can provide all nutrients the body needs and improve human health.

Research from the University of Oxford last year found foods with the largest negative environmental impacts, such as unprocessed and processed red meat, were linked with the largest increases in disease risk, while foods associated with improved health (whole grain cereals, fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts and some vegetable oils high in unsaturated fats, such as olive oil) have among the lowest environmental impacts.

What is a vegan diet?

Vegans do not eat foods that come from animals, including dairy products and eggs.

A vegan diet contains only plants and foods made from plants, such as vegetables, grains, nuts and fruits.

The NHS and British Dietetic Association say you can get most of the nutrients you need from eating a varied and balanced vegan diet. 

NHS tips for a healthy vegan diet:

  • eat at least 5 portions of a variety of fruit and vegetables every day
  • base meals on potatoes, bread, rice, pasta or other starchy carbohydrates (choose wholegrain where possible)
  • have some dairy alternatives, such as soya drinks and yoghurts (choose lower-fat and lower-sugar options)
  • eat some beans, pulses and other proteins
  • choose unsaturated oils and spreads, and eat in small amounts
  • drink plenty of fluids (the government recommends 6 to 8 cups or glasses a day

Dr Kassam said: ‘As a nation, we need to reduce meat intake by 50% while at the same time increase the consumption of plant based foods by 100% to improve our health and to mitigate the effects of our diet on climate change.

‘It’s become ingrained in our culture that we need meat to be at the centre of our meals, we need to re-evaluate that. If you have meat on your plate, it’s a choice you are making for the palette, not the nutrients, so, It should be seen as a condiment, not the main part.’

She added: ‘One of the many lessons we are learning from the current Covid-19 pandemic is that people with underlying health conditions have a higher risk of requiring hospitalisation, admission to the ICU and ultimately of dying.

‘In the UK, almost 90% of people who have died from the infection have at least one underlying health condition. We should therefore look to ensure that we improve overall public health and minimise the potential for underlying health conditions such as cardiovascular disease, obesity and type 2 diabetes, by opting for a predominantly whole food plant-based diet.’

Pre-existing health conditions are a risk factor in contracting coronavirus

PBHP is an organisation led by health professionals which provides information on plant-based diets for the prevention and treatment of chronic disease.

It is backing global campaign ‘No Meat May’ to urge consumers to cut back on their meat and dairy intake and to raise awareness between major disease outbreaks and animal agriculture.

The coronavirus crisis has seen a record number of sign-ups, with 33,000 people pledging to take part, compared to 10,000 in 2019.

Dr Kassam, said campaigns like this are important but that long-term, effective change would only come about if it was implemented from the top.

She said it was ‘outrageous’ that processed meat can be bought in cafes at NHS hospitals, where doctors treat the diseases they cause.

‘Change really needs to come from the top, through legislation, taxation and sensible subsidies. We are subsidising meat when we should be subsiding healthy food’ she said.

‘In the same way smoking was reduced through campaigns endorsed by public health and and the government, it needs to be done with our diet.

‘Public institutes and health professionals need to showcase a healthy diet. We should not be serving processed meat that causes cancer which we treat in hospitals.’

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