As COVID-19, also known as the coronavirus, ripples through the world, killing thousands of people and dramatically shifting our daily routines for an indefinite amount of time, some parts of life still go on. In particular, slaughterhouses and wildlife markets continue to operate in many parts of the world.
The production and consumption of livestock are documented as the leading causes of the increasing spread of both viral and bacterial infectious diseases, as well as a leading cause of diet-related chronic diseases, climate change, and air and water pollution. Moreover, animals are often extremely abused, as they are often kept in overcrowded and unhygienic conditions.
While we struggle to mitigate the global effects and mortalities related to COVID-19, we continue the destructive practices that were intertwined with the beginning of this pandemic. COVID-19 is speculated to have originated from the dietary consumption of animals from one of the many unregulated wildlife markets in China. The speculation surrounding the origin of COVID-19 notwithstanding, the unsanitary and confined conditions in which animals are kept create the perfect opportunity for new strains of viruses to emerge, which we are not equipped to control.
The deplorable conditions in which many animals are kept in the United States are breeding grounds for viruses, similar to other conditions worldwide. This conclusive association between livestock consumption and infectious diseases has been completely overlooked or ignored, and eating high quantities of meat and poultry continues unabated in the daily lives of many people across the U.S.
About 99% of total farm animals that are raised for meat in the U.S. live in large-scale concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs. Billions of animals are neglected and live miserable lives before being sent off for slaughter and killed in horrific ways, typically with no anesthesia. Each year in the U.S. alone, about 9 billion chickens, 41 million cattle and 120 million pigs are slaughtered for their meat.
These numbers don’t even include the animals being raised for dairy and eggs in equally horrific conditions. Animals in CAFOs live in cramped crates and pens, living on top of their own feces and urine without access to sunlight or open air. Animals that become too sick for human consumption are simply disposed of. The conditions that animals are raised and killed for their meat in have instigated the rise of animal-borne viruses responsible for illnesses such as the bird flu, swine flu, SARS and possibly COVID-19.
Additionally, our dependence on animals for food has spurred the rise of antibiotic resistance, which will likely be one of the biggest public health challenges we will face in the coming years. Livestock in CAFOs is pumped with massive amounts of hormones and antibiotics, causing growth at unnaturally high rates. These antibiotics are ingested when we consume this meat and drink water contaminated by the animal waste that leaches from CAFOs into waterways.
The overuse of antibiotics at these facilities also causes antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria to arise, including salmonella, E. coli and MRSA. Resistance to antibiotics is becoming increasingly difficult to address and is responsible for more than 35,000 deaths per year in the U.S. If we continue to conduct the same inhumane and unsanitary business in slaughterhouses and wildlife markets, similar large-scale health catastrophes are a plausible and alarming possibility.
In addition to the rapid spread of infectious diseases, CAFOs have also irreversibly damaged ecosystems across the planet and are responsible for environmentally racist practices. These include the pollution of local air and waterways that disproportionately affect low-income communities and people of color.
Manure and antibiotic runoff unavoidably contaminate surrounding air and local waterways in these communities, where there are high documented rates of asthma and degenerative diseases. CAFOs, due to their exhaustive usage of resources, are also implicated in increasing rates of world hunger. If the crops grown for feed were directed toward human consumption instead of livestock, we would be able to feed three times as many humans as we currently do.
The progressively catastrophic public health consequences of eating animals will only worsen if we do not reform our current systems of food sourcing and production. High mortality, business shutdowns, lockdowns, social distancing and international economic struggles are just a few of the consequences we are currently living through; we will likely re-encounter them in the future if we fail to act now. When we focus on simply mitigating the spread of a disease or treating it while ignoring its origins, we perpetuate the systems responsible for global pandemics, animal abuse, racism and environmental destruction.
Continuing to turn a blind eye to the link between meat-based diets and pandemics can only continue at the cost of the suffering and death of all animals, human and nonhuman. If now isn’t the time to rethink the relationship between animals, our diets and public health, then when is?
It is critical to use this pandemic as an opportunity to transform our industrialized food system and halt its undermining of human and planetary health. Now more than ever, consumers are shifting their diets and choosing more sustainable food options. Perhaps that maligned plant-based Impossible Burger doesn’t seem so impossibly bad after all.
Samantha Derrick is a graduate student at UC Berkeley studying public health with a focus on food systems, nutrition and animal welfare.