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Environmental law: COVID-19 – Rethinking the human-animal relationship

Environmental law: COVID-19 – Rethinking the human-animal relationship

By Jacob McCahon and Alexandra Harley

COVID-19 Environment 


In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, promoting human safety requires advocating for wildlife on the international stage and changing livestock farming at home.

  • We have laboured over the decisions and indecision of governments, but failed to fully appreciate the root cause of the COVID-19 crisis.
  • In the context of COVID-19, little to no attention has been paid to the harms posed by the wildlife trade – and virtually no attention has been  paid to the harms posed by livestock farming.
  • The wildlife trade and livestock farming are threatening our physical and economic safety. As a leader in livestock farming, Australia should start by making changes in this field.

An under-recognised aspect of the COVID-19 pandemic is the harm posed to humans by animals. It is understood the pandemic was caused by live animals in a market. Notably, Australia has proposed an international investigation into the sale of live wildlife at markets. While we applaud this suggestion, the problem is larger. Where a market in Wuhan may have been the trigger cause, a rethink of the broader human-animal relationship is necessary. Livestock farming poses broader safety risks beyond the direct threats presented by the wildlife trade. 

In relation to wildlife, humans are now poaching and hunting more than 300 mammal species. It is the world’s largest trade after drugs, people and arms. People want endangered wildlife for traditional medicines, meat and caged exotic pets. The more iconic and endangered the animal is, the higher the demand. Pangolins are the most trafficked animal (their scales and meat are prized). Thirty thousand elephants are killed every year for their ivory, three rhinos are killed a day, and only 3200 tigers are left in the wild. Australian wildlife implicated in the international pet trade include parrots, cockatoos, snakes and lizards. A black cockatoo can be worth $30,000.1

In relation to livestock, there is also an increasing demand for animal food products. This is in the expanding middle class in the developing world and in the West. Europeans consume 50 per cent more red meat than the maximum level advised by the World Cancer Research Fund and Australian meat consumption increased by 13 per cent between 1998 and 2018.2

Direct safety concerns

The world has a “rapacious appetite for wildlife”, and this is posing “biosecurity and human health risks”.3 The list of recent zoonotic diseases (diseases that transfer from animals to humans) includes HIV, Ebola, Zika, Hendra, SARS, MERS and Bird Flu. 

The recent intensification of camel production, from previously foraging outdoors to primarily being kept indoors in high stocking densities, is understood to have caused MERS. SARS is believed to have been transmitted from bats to humans through intermediary civet cats being sold at wet markets. In central Africa, land use changes and an altered climate forced bats and chimpanzees into human habitats in search of food (causing Ebola). Hendra was also the result of the urbanisation of fruit bats following habitat loss. Most recently, COVID-19 is understood to have originated in bats and subsequently transmitted to humans via the pangolin.4

Local laws and enforcement

While effective laws and active denouncement of the wildlife trade are important, this article focuses on the local livestock industry.

In Victoria, there is a litany of regulation to promote protection and safety. Section 9(1)(a) of the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act 1986 (Vic) makes it an offence for a person to override, overdrive, overwork or worry an animal. The Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Regulations 2019 (Vic) ensures animals are properly hydrated, tethered and groomed when in transit. There are various codes of practice, including those for cattle, deer, goats, poultry and sheep. The Code of Practice for the Welfare of Animals at Saleyards is a guide on preventing stress to animals up for sale. Under the Code of Practice for the Welfare of Cattle, livestock operators must adhere to the “basic needs for the welfare of cattle”, including water, food, air, social contact, sufficient space, protection from injury and protection from unnecessary pain.5

Under ss7-8 of the Livestock Management Act 2010 (Vic), livestock operators must undertake systematic risk assessments of livestock management activities. These require “an assessment of the likely risks to animal welfare and biosecurity arising from the regulated livestock management activity”. Under ss31-32 of the Livestock Management Act, inspectors under the Cruelty to Animals Act 1986 (Vic) and/or the Livestock Disease Control Act 1994 (Vic) are empowered to ensure livestock management activities are lawful. These inspectors may enter, search, inspect and/or examine livestock facilities. 

Moreover, s44 of the Meat Industry Act 1993 (Vic) establishes PrimeSafe to protect public health by controlling and reviewing the standards of meat, poultry and game for consumption; the hygiene of livestock facilities; and the cleanliness of livestock transport vehicles. The Livestock Disease Control Act 1994 (Vic) is in place to prevent, monitor and control livestock disease, providing instructions and guidelines to livestock operators on the management of different species.

Broader safety considerations

Evidently, there is a labyrinth of regulation promoting safety in the local livestock industry. However, there are broader safety risks. The growing livestock farming industry is contributing to deforestation, soil degradation, resource waste, dietary harm, water pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.

In 2016, 30 million hectares of forest were razed. Deforestation reduces biodiversity – the variety of life on earth, in all its forms and all its interactions. As part of evolution, species have become reliant on natural habitats and weather patterns. Plants provide oxygen and pollinating bees mean we have fruit and nuts; trees absorb air pollution in urban areas; and coral reefs and mangrove swamps reduce the likelihood of tsunamis and cyclones on the coasts. Tropical tortoises and spider monkeys disperse seeds that are vital for the health of dense hardwood trees that are, in turn, vital for absorbing CO2 in the atmosphere.6

Livestock farming has acidified soils through acidifying fertilisers (which have changed soil PH levels).7 Hoofed animals have also damaged the ability of soils to absorb and desorb water.8 The UN declares current agricultural trends mean the world’s soils will be effectively destroyed within 60 years.9

Livestock farming has inefficiencies. Where 36 per cent of the world’s crop calories are fed to animals, only 17 to 30 per cent of these calories are returned for human consumption (through meat or milk). This means 70 to 83 per cent of the world’s crop calories are being lost. In exchange “for every 100 calories of grain we feed to animals, we only get 40 calories of milk, 22 calories of eggs, 12 [calories] of chicken, 10 [calories] of pork, or three [calories] of beef”.10 In addition, 21,900 Australian farms apply 8 million megalitres of water a year in agricultural production.11

Livestock farming has led to high levels of meat consumption in the West (and increasing levels in the developing world), which is harmful to human health. The overconsumption of animal protein leads to “increased risks of obesity, diabetes, heart diseases and certain cancers”.12

The fertilisers, pesticides, and herbicides used in livestock farming cause water pollution (grey-water footprints) that affect downstream users. There is water contamination, riverbank erosion and adverse impacts on the stream turbidity in waterways.13

Livestock farming creates more greenhouse gases than the transportation sector. When fertilisers are applied to stimulate feed crops, the nitrogen not taken up by the feed crops is emitted into the atmosphere. Nitrogen is also discharged by livestock through manure. Excess nitrogen from livestock farming washes into rivers and lakes and leaches from the soil into groundwater (contaminating drinking water sources and damaging aquatic marine systems). The food system is currently responsible for between 25 to 30 per cent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.14

What we can do


We can reimagine existing agricultural areas. This means retaining remaining levels of biodiversity and preventing any further use of natural ecosystems for cropland and development. Australia can do so by embracing the “Half-Earth” strategy – the goal prescribed by the EAT-Lancet Commission on Food, Planet, and Health (a forum that brought together 37 world-leading scientists). Currently we protect 15 per cent of land and 7 per cent of oceans. The EAT-Lancet Commissions says we should preserve the remaining 50 per cent of the earth’s land and oceans for wildlife and ecosystem conservation.15 A 50 per cent protection target could be included in Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (Cth) ch 2. 

Soil degradation

The land we use to grow feed crops for livestock can be better utilised to grow crops for direct human consumption. More people will be fed, and it will prevent crops expanding into grasslands, savannahs and forests. More crop rotations, legume planting, and effective use of livestock manure — and less single crops, chemical fertilisers, and pesticides — will improve soils. 

Studies reveal regenerative farmers in Australia are performing better (even in times of flood). This requires carefully rotating stock around grazing areas and prioritising the growth and health of native vegetation. Where most grazing areas have three per cent grass and trees, regenerative farms have closer to 20 per cent. The extra grasses and trees help capture carbon in the atmosphere and the deep-rooted systems better recycle nutrients in the soil. Livestock could be confined to these green spaces and away from croplands.16

Resource waste

Farmers can lower resource waste by planting and harvesting a variety of healthy crops and fruit trees. Reducing livestock numbers and keeping animals away from croplands will reduce the industry’s grey-and blue-water footprints and maximise caloric crop yields. In fact, a 50 per cent reduction in livestock production will save 12,000 species, 4.5 million square kilometres of land, and millions of megalitres of water.17

Dietary harm

The EAT-Lancet Commission suggests a diet rich in plant-based foods and with fewer animal source foods confers both improved health and environmental benefits. The Commission recommends reducing global red meat consumption by 50 per cent and growing a variety of plant-based grains, fruit, vegetables, beans, pulses, legumes and nuts. This means fewer single crops in high volumes for animal feed and embracing the “planetary health plate”. The planetary health plate is half filled with sustainable and locally sourced vegetables and fruits and half filled with wholegrains, plant proteins and unsaturated plant oils (with optional modest amounts of animal protein).18

Water pollution

Rotating a variety of healthy crops for human consumption, planting legumes, not using herbicides, pesticides and chemical fertilisers, and keeping livestock away from croplands will improve soil quality and lessen grey-water pollution. Livestock could be restricted to graze in expansive grass areas with plentiful trees. This would be made easier by reducing livestock numbers, which would also reduce the industry’s blue-water footprint. 

Greenhouse gas emissions

The EAT-Lancet Commission suggests “food systems have environmental impacts along the entire supply chain from production to processing and retail.”19 The regenerative farming and livestock reduction measures mentioned above, combined with less meat purchasing by consumers, will substantially reduce nitrogen, methane and CO2 emissions. As it stands, skipping one serving of beef every Monday for a year will save the equivalent greenhouse gas emissions as driving 560 kilometres.20


2020 has been a year filled with challenges and surprises. It has shifted our psyches and our social standards. Where it is easy to blame those in government for our current woes, it is worthwhile reflecting on the root causes of the COVID-19 crisis – including the increasing intimacy between animals and humans. 

While wildlife poses direct safety risks, we contend livestock farming poses broader and underappreciated safety harms (including deforestation, soil degradation, resource waste, dietary harm, water pollution and greenhouse gas emissions). Alleviating these harms will require changes to laws and standards (including the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (Cth) and Livestock Management Act 2010 (Vic)), financial incentives from government and sustainable decisions by consumers.

Local livestock regulations promote the direct safety of humans and the wellbeing of animals. In fact, some of the provisions could even be described as anthropomorphic. Although the wording is sound, we suggest the rationale of the regulations is flawed. Yes, we are heavily reliant on the sale of meat. In 2017–18, the red meat and livestock industry contributed $18.5 billion to Australia’s GDP (through 80,300 business). Nevertheless, the industry is harming our species and our planet. And, as this article has demonstrated, changes can be made through regenerative farming and reducing livestock numbers. Bill Gates wrote at the onset of the pandemic, “We are sick because our home is sick”. We now need to consider if it is time to make us as a people, and as a planet, that little bit healthier. ■

Jacob McCahon is the senior researcher (civil) at the County Court of Victoria, a residential tutor at Trinity College at the University of Melbourne, and co-chair of the LIV YL Law Reform Committee. Alexandra Harley is in her final year of her Bachelor of Arts/Laws (Honours) at Monash University.

  1. Ronda J Green, Simin D Maleknia & Al Mucci (Wildlife Tourism Australia), “Illegal Wildlife Trafficking: Attacking on All Fronts” (Report on Sydney Workshop, June 2017) Illegal Trafficking in Australia – a Zoological Industry Perspective. 
  2. Compassion in World Farming et al, The Food Security, Sustainability, Public Health and Animal Welfare Implications of Livestock Production (Position Paper, November 2014) 4–5; Morning Program, Sunrise (Seven Network Australia, 24 August 2020).
  3. Phuong Tham and David Littleproud quoted in “Vietnam Bans Wildlife Imports and Markets amid Concerns over Coronavirus Spread”, ABC News (online, 25 July 2020) <>.
  4. Fiona Armstrong, “Coronavirus is a wake-up call: our war with the environment is leading to pandemics”, The Conversation (online, 31 March 2020) <>.
  5. Agriculture Victoria, “Code of Accepted Farming Practice for the Welfare of Cattle”, Animal Welfare Victoria (Web Page, 23 June 2020), <>.
  6. Damian Carrington, ‘What is biodiversity and why does it matter to us?’, The Guardian (online, 12 March 2018), <>.
  7. “The Role of Nitrogen Fertilizer on Soil pH”, Brookside Laboratories Inc (Web Page, 2020) <>.
  8. “Grazing management to reduce soil damage”, Agriculture Victoria (Web Page, 23 June 2020) <>.
  9. Bibi van der Zee, “Why factory farming is not just cruel – but also a threat to all life on the planet”, The Guardian (online, 4 October 2017) <>.
  10. Note 2 above, Compassion in World Farming et al, 3.
  11. Australian Bureau of Statistics, Water Use on Australian Farms (Catalogue No 4618.0, 28 May 2020).
  12. Compassion in World Farming et al, The Food Security, Sustainability, Public Health and Animal Welfare Implications of Livestock Production (Position Paper, November 2014) 4.
  13. Agriculture Victoria, “Code of practice for the welfare of animals at saleyards”, Animal Welfare Victoria (Web Page, 3 July 2020) <>.
  14. Cheikh Mbow and Cynthia Rozenzweig, Food Security (IPCC SRCCL Report, 7 August 2019) 6.
  15. EAT-Lancet Commission, Healthy Diets from Sustainable Food Systems: Food Planet Health (Summary Report, 2018) 24; Robin McKie, “Should we give up half of the Earth to wildlife?”, The Guardian (online, 18 February 2018) <>.
  16. Note 12 above, 6.
  17. Caitlin Mucerino, “David Attenborough Wants You to Go Plant-Based to Save the Planet”, The Beet (Web Page, 26 August 2020) <>.
  18. Note 15 above, EAT-Lancet Commission, 7, 9, 12–13, 22.
  19. Note 15 above, EAT-Lancet Commission, 5.
  20. “The Benefits of Meatless Monday”, Meatless Monday (Web Page, 2020) <>.

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