How Our Food Choices Can Help Prevent A Future Pandemic

Poorva Joshipura

In my newly released book, For a Moment of Taste, written before the COVID-19 crisis, I warned that the time is ripe for a deadly pandemic, according to experts. That dire event has come to pass, and as Ingrid Newkirk, founder of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and its affiliates worldwide, recently advised in a letter to the World Health Organization (WHO), “It’s a matter of when – not if – the next pandemic will occur, as long as live-animal markets are permitted to continue endangering both humans and other animals.” The same goes for factory farms and slaughter – the meat trade is putting our lives at risk.

Public health experts overwhelmingly believe that like the coronavirus that causes SARS, the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19 first infected humans at a live-animal meat market in China through wildlife. At these markets, animals of a variety of species, ranging from dogs to pangolins, are sold, dead or alive, for their flesh.

Also Read: Coronavirus Pandemic: Illegal Wildlife Trade Is A Public Health Issue

As Peter Li, an associate professor at the University of Houston–Downtown in the US, states, regarding these markets (often called “wet” markets): “The cages are stacked one over another. Animals at the bottom are often soaked with all kinds of liquid. Animal excrement, pus, blood.” Such conditions provide ample opportunity for viruses to spread from one animal to another, including to humans, who come into contact with them. But pathogens don’t just infect wildlife. As we all know, chickens are kept in the same unhygienic conditions that Professor Li describes at live poultry markets, which can be found in every Indian town and city.

At these markets, animals of a variety of species, ranging from dogs to pangolins, are sold, dead or alive, for their flesh.

In fact, as WHO states, in 1997, the first-ever human infections of the H5N1 strain of bird flu, which has been plaguing Indian poultry farms again this year, coincided with infections found in chickens at farms and live-animal meat markets in Hong Kong. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) explains that most human infections with this virus have occurred through contact with infected birds. Live poultry markets and the crowded factory farms in which chickens are raised facilitate that contact. When humans get infected, the mortality rate is about 60 percent.

Chinese city of Wuhan is an important hub in the lucrative trade in wildlife – both legal and illegal.

Zoonotic (i.e. of animal origin) diseases in humans don’t just start in China, either. The US CDC estimates that up to over 575,400 people worldwide died from H1N1 swine flu just during the first year that that virus circulated. Its roots have been traced to a strain that existed in North Carolina pig farms in the US in 1998. In the decade before that, North Carolina’s pig population jumped from 2 million to 10 million, and the animals were crowded onto fewer farms.

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According to Farm Animal Investment Risk and Return (FAIRR), over 70 percent of the world’s farmed animals are now factory-farmed. Factory farms house pigs, chickens, cows, fish, and other animals by the hundreds, thousands, or even millions – confining them to cages, crates, or stalls hardly any larger than their own bodies or in severely crowded tanks or sheds – to supply the demand for meat, eggs, and milk. Bob Martin, former executive director of the Pew Commission on Industrial Animal Farm Production, calls these farms “super-incubators for viruses’.

Butchering animals also poses a risk to humans. Ebola and HIV in humans have both been traced back to killing wild animals for food.

Antibiotics help factory farms, including fish farms, continue to exist, since keeping deliberately bred, genetically identical, stressed animals in jam-packed, filthy conditions means that diseases can spread quickly. Globally, antibiotics are used more heavily in animal agriculture than in human health. This antibiotic overuse makes factory farms perfect breeding grounds for superbugs – new, aggressive pathogens – and simultaneously risks rendering important drugs ineffective in humans who need them. It’s estimated that resistant infections kill more than 58,000 babies in India every year.

Butchering animals also poses a risk to humans. Ebola and HIV in humans have both been traced back to killing wild animals for food. About Ebola, the CDC says, “[I]n Africa human infections have been associated with hunting, butchering, and processing meat from infected animals,” while HIV is largely believed to have first infected humans through killing and eating or hunting chimpanzees.

Elizabeth Maruma Mrema, the acting executive secretary of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, recently said, “The message we are getting is if we don’t take care of nature, it will take care of us.” The best way for individuals to ensure we’re taking care of nature, and ourselves, is to be vegan.

Image Credit: HarperCollins India/Poorva Joshipura

Poorva Joshipura is the current senior vice president of International Operations with PETA Foundation. She is the author of the book For a Moment of Taste. The views expressed are the author’s own.