Covid-19 puts meat on the chopping block

The Covid-19 pandemic has kicked off a blame game of epic proportions. The US and many others say China is to blame for the outbreak. To counter this, some Chinese sources incredulously suggest that the US somehow planted it there.

Many others, however, are spewing Sinophobia-tinted insults at those who eat bats while happily chomping on chicken, unaware of the fact that the reason they consume one type of meat over another is largely due to cultural conditioning.

But recently, there have been a slew of people who have been pointing their fingers at our ravenous appetite for meat and the place it comes from – factory farms. They make a lot of sense.

Factory farming or intensive animal farming is the practice of raring animals for meat in severely crowded confined spaces in order to maximise output while minimising costs. Most of the eggs, chicken, pork, and beef we eat today originate from such facilities which are rife with atrocities that would put Nazi concentration camps and Stalin’s gulags to shame.

Some of the numerous crimes committed on animals in today’s factory farms include the forced impregnation (rape) of female cows, the murder of countless male chicks by chucking them down a grinder, and confining pigs to a space so small that they regularly trudge through their own faeces.

I know what you’re thinking. This is all obviously horrible but why blame meat consumption and factory farming when we know that Covid-19 originated in wet markets in China that sold bats and pangolins?

That’s because, as factory farms gained steam in the 1990s in China, small-time farmers were undercut and many were pushed out of the industry by bigger, deep-pocketed players. To make ends meet, they turned to farming high-value wild animals like pangolins, civet cats, snakes, turtles, cicadas, guinea pigs, bamboo rats, badgers, hedgehogs and otters that were previously only eaten for subsistence.

But since these sprawling factory farms took up a lot of their land, they were forced to farm near the edges of the forest and closer to the home of wild animals like bats that carry diseases. This continued encroachment and increased contact with wild animal populations over recent years led to an explosion of zoonotic diseases, including Covid-19, avian flu, Ebola, HIV, swine flu, Nipah, SARS, and mad cow disease. These are diseases that originate in animals and jump to humans due in part to our prolific production and consumption of meat.

At this point, you might say that instead of entirely getting rid of factory farms, the sensible thing to do would be to ensure that we don’t encroach into the forest which is home to disease-carrying wild animals. The problem is, once there’s an outbreak, factory farms promote the speedy transmission of the disease.

In his book Big Farms Make Big Flu, biologist Rob Wallace says that the incredible proximity with which these animals are packed together, coupled with the fact that they are near-genetic clones of one another, means diseases can “race through it (the animal population) without meeting any resistance in the form of genetic variants that prevent its spread”. This amplifies its virulence and makes it potentially deadlier to humans.

In addition, these sickening factory farms breed their own deadly diseases, and recent history is littered with examples of this. The worst pandemic of the last 100 years, the 1918 flu which killed around 50 million people, was caused by an H1N1 virus that originated in a Kansas chicken farm. The swine flu pandemic of 2009 which killed more than a quarter-million people is thought to have originated in pig farms in the US and Mexico.

Both the deadly H5N1 influenza, which killed a staggering 60% of those infected, and the H7N9 influenza, which killed 30% of those infected, originated from poultry farms in China. Thankfully they were far less contagious than Covid-19 and so were successfully contained.

We may not be so lucky next time.

Having said that, I have to admit that our voracious appetite for meat does not have a monopoly on the emergence of zoonotic diseases. Notable examples of this include the mosquito-borne Malaria, Yersinia pestis which caused the 14th-century plague, and recently, the Zika virus – all of which were not directly caused by meat production.

However, we can see that the production of meat in general, and factory farming in particular, is a leading contributor to the outbreak of deadly infectious diseases and consequently the suffering and death of millions worldwide.

As author Jonathan Safran Foer says: “We cannot protect against pandemics while continuing to eat meat regularly. Much attention has been paid to wet markets, but factory farms, specifically poultry farms, are a more important breeding ground for pandemics. Further, the CDC (Centers for Disease Control) reports that three out of four new or emerging infectious diseases are zoonotic — the result of our broken relationship with animals”.

Political scientist Jan Dutkiewicz, author Astra Taylor, and environmental historian Troy Vettese suggest a solution to this: “Individually, we must stop eating animal products. Collectively, we must transform the global food system and work toward ending animal agriculture and rewilding much of the world. Oddly, many people who would never challenge the reality of climate change refuse to acknowledge the role meat-eating plays in endangering public health. Eating meat, it seems, is a socially acceptable form of science denial”.

So the next time you think of blaming the pandemic on something, all you have to do is look at the plate right in front of you.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.

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