Dr. Hope Ferdowsian, MD, MPH, FACPM, is a physician, author, and the President of the Phoenix Zones Initiative, which advances human rights & animal rights, health & wellbeing through multilateral structural change.
The emergence of SARS-CoV-2, which causes the disease COVID-19, prompted a global rallying cry to shut down the wild animal trade in China that has been tied to the pandemic. But the situation in China is not an exception; it has become the rule. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, three out of four new or emerging infectious diseases in humans come from animals. The risk increases considerably with the poor treatment of animals in crowded, stressful live animal markets, industrialized animal farms, and slaughterhouses.
Prior outbreaks illustrate the connections between using animals for food and infectious disease risk. The 2003 global SARS-CoV outbreak, which caused Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, is thought to have emerged in civet cats held in animal markets in Guangdong, China. Within six years, scientists tracked down the origins of the 2009 H1N1 swine flu in North American pig farms. Other diseases, like avian influenza, Ebola, and HIV can be traced to turning birds, bats, primates, and other animals into food. Rather than addressing the root cause of dangerous zoonoses, national and international resources commonly focus on surveillance and mitigation. Unfortunately, these rather reactive strategies have failed in a number of ways despite significant financial, political, and scientific investment. During the past three years, the National Center for Emerging and Zoonotic Infectious Diseases published a budget of more than half a billion dollars per year, which also covers attempts to deter antibiotic resistance associated with indiscriminate antibiotic use within industrialized farms.
But do we need to eat animals in order to be healthy? Simply put, no. Meat is not a nutritional requirement for human beings. Longitudinal cohort studies, randomized controlled trials, and systematic reviews show how different meats can fuel heart disease and certain forms of cancer, whereas plant-based diets can help prevent or reverse these and many other costly diseases. The health benefits of plant-based lifestyles are particularly relevant at a time when the top killer of Americans is no longer tobacco, but heart disease, which is closely related to unhealthy diets and inadequate physical activity. Children, in particular, face lifetimes of diseases doctors rarely diagnosed a generation ago. Compared with thirty years ago, kids are more likely to suffer from obesity, diabetes, and abnormal cholesterol levels.
Over the past few decades, world meat production has considerably outpaced the population growth rate. On average, one American consumes more than two hundred pounds of meat per year. The global nutrition transition from largely plant-based diets to processed, meat-laden diets has contributed to an emerging noncommunicable disease pandemic, driving up healthcare costs in resource-poor areas including in both urban and rural hospitals across the United States. The emerging chronic disease pandemic is as important to confront as the novel coronavirus.
Paradoxically, the global obsession with meat fuels hunger. Animal farming requires large amounts of water, land, and grains, which could otherwise be more efficiently used to feed the eight hundred million people who suffer from chronic undernourishment. The struggle for food security is worsened by climate change and environmental degradation, which are both driven by meat production. In 2006, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimated that the meat and dairy sector was one of the top contributors to serious environmental problems, including climate change and air, water, and soil pollution. Three years later, a Worldwatch Institute report, authored by environmental advisors to the World Bank, suggested that the sector was responsible for at least half of all greenhouse gas emissions. These global data on the links between meat production and disease, hunger, and climate change have pushed the World Health Organization and the United Nations to recommend a plant-based diet.
The COVID-19 crisis compels us to look at these facts critically. In the United States alone, this novel virus has already cost tens of thousands of deaths, a jobless rate higher than most Americans have seen in their lifetimes, and trillions of dollars. In order to conserve healthcare resources, regular care has been sidelined as inequities grow, placing the most vulnerable individuals and communities at even greater risk for suffering. Across the globe, vaccination campaigns against polio, measles, and other deadly diseases have been placed on hold. One can only imagine the long-term costs of this pandemic associated with worsening social determinants of health and missed opportunities in delayed public health, primary care, and other medical and surgical interventions.
We now have the opportunity to re-envision our foodscape, including cultural, economic, and political discourses about food. Meat’s perceived social and cultural importance is overshadowed by societal costs that take the form of disease, climate change, and environmental inequities. The family farm has become a myth romanticized by large conglomerates desperate to sell their products. Moreover, the economic reality is distorted. The federal government spends an estimated $38 billion dollars each year to subsidize the meat and dairy industry, driving down the real cost of a hamburger or chicken wing. While producers claim that meat production contributes to the U.S. and global economy, the true health, social, and environmental costs of meat production are rarely calculated. These costs are often borne by the most vulnerable individuals and communities, including slaughterhouse workers and the animals themselves.
Meat processing plants, where workers are crowded together as animals are killed and packed up for human consumption, quickly became epicenters of COVID-19 outbreaks, causing temporary shutdowns. Slaughterhouse workers face compounded health risks since they already suffer from life-threatening injuries, posttraumatic stress disorder, and other physical and mental health challenges, and they may lack access to adequate healthcare due to their financial or immigration status. It is worth asking why these workers have been deemed essential and asked to risk their lives for non-essential food products.
The moment is ripe to move toward change that addresses our problematic and harmful relationship with food. The storm of the current pandemic offers opportunities to think of food production and consumption in a way that directly addresses its risks and long-term outcomes for individuals and communities. Now is the time to turn toward a just, regenerative, plant-based economy that values the rights, health, and wellbeing of its citizens. Without a dramatic shift in the way we produce and consume food, it is not difficult to imagine that the next pandemic is already on its way.