The term “veganism” and the lifestyle affiliated to it, namely the complete abstention from animal products, especially in diet, is growing in international importance. A vegan diet has been fundamentally proven to lead to better health, by lowering blood pressure, cholesterol, and rates of heart disease. Veganism is also globally renowned for its positive environmental impact, such as reducing the carbon footprint of an individual by up to 73%. This clearly makes it a superior sustainable way of living. However, what we talk about far less is the fact that a shift to a plant-based diet is the only guaranteed way to prevent pandemics such as COVID-19 from occurring in the future. Of course, your economical self might ask “What are the negative externalities of a plant-based diet?” The answer: there are none.
Individuals with a meat-based diet incentivise mass livestock farming that is incredibly destructive to the conservation of natural habitats and the preservation of millions of lifeforms, such as in the Amazon Rainforest, while also allowing for dangerous pathogens such as the COVID-19 virus to emerge. This mass farming strategy that underpins our entire world economy today creates a close physical proximity between humans and wildlife, enabling disease to be a consistent threat to global and local health systems – not to mention the approach used for animal farming, which gives rise to such filthy, unethical conditions.
According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than 75% of emerging infectious diseases originate in animals. Thus, most pandemics are human-made, emerging in animals raised for human consumption and jumping the species-barrier to humans, and not the uncontrollable natural disasters we perceive them to be. Our enormous demand for meat means that animals are living cramped together in squalid conditions, giving rise to the development of viruses and other diseases which can eventually become dangerous for humans as well. In short, raising and killing animals for food threatens human health. COVID-19 specifically is the result of gross animal mistreatment, as it most likely emerged in an Asian wet market where live animals are housed in constricted, unsanitary conditions.
The demands made by Singers and Cavalieri, a team of philosophers devoted to animal rights to close such wet markets in China, is more than justified – but we also must look at our own animal production conditions in Europe, which unfortunately reflect a similar picture. Animals are violently fitted to the husbandry system, leading to the brutal removal of horns, tails, or teeth. The basic needs of the animals are ignored: they are drastically restricted in their freedom to move around and routinely fed antibiotics to be kept alive, leading to the emergence and the rapid transmission of dangerous pathogens. To live in a vegan world would mean that those sordid conditions, and the associated emergence of disease with pandemic potential, would discontinue. This would lead to the elimination of situations like a pandemic altogether.
“According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than 75% of emerging infectious diseases originate in animals.”
Regrettably, this is by no means a new discovery, and COVID-19 is not the first virus which developed out of the shocking animal farming conditions and overconsumption of animal products around the world. HIV most likely originated from SIV, crossing the species barrier through non-human primates killed for human consumption. The Creutzfeldt Jakob syndrome developed from BSE (mad cow disease), which arose out of the consumption of infected cattle. Although it is no secret that the way we are currently treating animals for consumption drastically affects our own physical health, there has been no active movements to a more sustainable way of eating. Veganism is “trending” at the moment, yet in day-today life vegans are still the subject of eye rolls and scoffs by greater society.
Put it this way, an average meat-based diet requires 17 times more land, 14 times more water and 10 times more energy than a vegan diet. So, to meet the demand of animal products endless hectares of rainforest and other natural habitats are destroyed, creating an imbalance in the environment – yet another cause for the emergence of zoonotic diseases such as COVID-19. For example, bat-associated viruses have emerged due to the loss of bat habitat from deforestation and agricultural expansion. The destruction of such habitat leads to closer proximity between wild animals and humans, again facilitating the jump of the species-barrier. Veganism drastically reduces the amount of destruction to the environment, as less agricultural space and energy is used to feed populations, which encourages the retention of natural habitat. Wild animals would stay wild in their natural habitats and would not live in close proximity to humans. As a result, the diseases that they carry are not able to exploit humans as a host. This facilitates a more natural, balanced relationship between wild animals and humans.
The solution to a pandemic-less future then, is theoretically simple: we need to reconsider and reject our consumption of animal products in every form. But in practice, of course, this will be far more complex – this largely global issue requires global cooperation (something that is rarely, if ever, actually achieved). It is a constant battle between politics and economics. Many people argue that the advocacy of a plant-based diet infringes on their freedom of choice, that everyone has the individual right to make the decision to eat animal products or not. Yet, looking at the current pandemic and the drastic consequences it has had and will continue to have for all of humanity, in every part of the world, from losing loved ones to the disease over destroying career prospects to restricting our very freedom of movement, we must ask ourselves if the consumption of animal products truly is, or should be, an individual decision.
And even if moral, health and environmental reasons are still not enough to convince the majority of the population to reconsider their eating habits, the current pandemic is hard proof that it is past time to do so. It must be made clear that eating habits are not an individual decision but a collective one – we all suffer the consequences of animal production and consumption, never more visible than during the current pandemic. Lockdowns worldwide show that we are willing to make sacrifices when our own lives are in danger. So should we not be equally willing to shift to a more plant-based diet in order to prevent such situations from even occurring in the first place, instead of merely fighting them tooth and nail as they arise? We do not need a few perfect vegans. We need millions of people trying to reduce their consumption of animal products to prevent the emergence of pandemics. It is important to have understanding, and to recognise that it takes time to make this type of change. We must encourage people to make this important shift through educative means and support. That said, veganism is not, by any means, the magic solution to this world’s problems; but a movement towards a plant-based, vegan diet is the only way of avoiding the emergence of future pandemics, and the best shot we have available to us to combat them at this time. We must rally together and unite to fight the good fight.
Featured photo by Inigo de la Maza