While it seems like COVID-19 is one of the greatest challenges facing humanity, it is merely a symptom of much larger issues.
The epidemic caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus may seem like a freak event thrown at humanity by chance, but the extensive global demand for meat has created the perfect conditions for it to occur. Although it is frightening that our choices have facilitated the emergence of a deadly disease, it also means we have the power to reduce the chances of this from happening again. Choosing to eat less meat can help us make the COVID-19 pandemic the last, and not merely the first, pandemic we see in our lifetime.
Roughly 75 percent of new infectious diseases are zoonotic, meaning they originate in non-human animals. While we may feel far removed from the events that lead to the current pandemic, our decision to eat meat has an impact on practices like animal farming and deforestation, which facilitate the spread of diseases from wildlife to humans.
Although diseases can transfer directly from wildlife to humans, livestock can serve as a midway point by harboring and transferring diseases between the two. The high density of animals on farms allows pathogens to accumulate in larger numbers than those which occur in dispersed wild animals. The high density of animals also accelerates the evolution of pathogens to become more infectious and resistant to antibiotics.
The global meat industry is interconnected, and the emergence of diseases on American farms isn’t uncommon. After the H7N2 bird flu outbreaks occurred globally in 2002, affecting both poultry and humans, researchers compared isolated strains of the virus from Eurasia and North America. They found that while Eurasian strains only had the ability to bind to receptors common in birds, the North American ones evolved to bind to receptors common in human tracheal epithelial cells. The ability to bind to a cell’s receptors is a necessary step for infection, indicating the evolution that occurred in domestic poultry farms greatly increased the virus’ potential for a human pandemic.
The transportation to American farms, likely through both legal and illegal imports of birds, gave H7N2 a set of conditions that allowed it to become more infectious to humans. This demonstrated that no matter where they take place, meat industry practices have the potential to cause pandemics.
This event demonstrates that even if livestock were transported with precaution, there are always ways for diseases to spread in the meat industry and become more dangerous.
In addition to the high density of animals themselves, the changes made to natural landscapes to accommodate the growing meat industries are driving the transmission of zoonotic diseases. Deforestation reduces biodiversity — the variety of different species in a habitat — which can lead to an increased risk of new pandemics. When forests are destroyed, the species who remain tend to be tolerant of habitat disturbance and thrive in human developments, which increases the possibility of transmission to people.
In one of many studies on the relationship between low species diversity and disease prevalence, researchers in Missouri found that areas with few bird species had high prevalence of West Nile virus in mosquitoes and humans. The bird species that remained in low diversity areas also tended to be the most effective carriers of the virus. Therefore, bird communities with low diversity were mainly composed of species that were effective carriers of the virus, and mosquitoes had a higher chance of spreading it from the birds to humans.
The two biggest drivers of deforestation globally are cattle and soybean production — both of which are connected to meat consumption. It has been well established that cattle production has driven deforestation in South America — accounting for 71.2 percent of cleared forests.
The vast majority of soy grown goes to feed cows, pigs and chickens. To meet the growing global demand for meat consumption, soybean production grew exponentially during the 1990s. In South America, vast amounts of forests were cleared for soybeans, eventually becoming responsible for a quarter of deforestation rates by the 2000s.
In response to this, international organizations like Greenpeace implemented a soy moratorium, pressuring corporations like McDonald’s to stop sourcing soy coming from newly cleared lands. While this has been very effective at reducing deforestation rates, indirect effects, such as soy farmers buying pastures, which then pushes cattle farmers to clear forests, continue soy-driven deforestation.
Although many people in America put the blame of coronavirus on those that eat wild game in China, our contributions to the mechanized meat industry played a part in this process. In 2018, researchers predicted that the high density of bats in urban areas of Asia, a result of the conversion of forests into populated agricultural lands and cities, would produce novel coronavirus diseases. People who consume wild animals are therefore sourcing their meat from high density wildlife populations, which has the same problems as when people source their meat from areas with a high density of livestock. For many people around the world with little income, wild game is a necessary source of nutrition. With access to nutritious alternatives to meat, Americans should reduce their consumption of meat to minimize the deforestation contributing to the spread of diseases.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change described plant-based diets, even ones that incorporate some sustainably sourced meats, as a way to mitigate climate change — reducing the need for millions of square kilometers of pasture land, thereby reducing deforestation.
In America, plant-based diets have already been on the rise. Large domestic meat corporations like Tyson have taken notice, recently putting out-plant based meat alternatives. While this may not be an end to the meat industry as we know it, it’s a step in the right direction. The more people incentivize these corporations to reduce their investment in the meat industry, the better.
Reasons for meat consumption are largely based on the fact that it is the norm.
I, like many people, heard the environmental reasons to eat less meat, such as reducing greenhouse emissions and water intake. I, however, irresponsibly rationalized meat-eating because it felt normal. Like me, most omnivores justify it under the “4 N’s”: that eating meat is nice, necessary, natural and normal. However, if we want to live in a world with less frequent and less deadly pandemics, we may want a new normal — one with less meat.
Just like with global warming, the emergence of new diseases is a result of changes to the environment after years of endless production. I’m sure many people like me have heard of the environmental benefits of consuming less meat, but up until now, the impacts of climate change haven’t felt very tangible. We need to take the COVID-19 pandemic as a wakeup call and use this life-changing event to reconsider our consumption choices.
I’d rather eat less meat than not see my friends for a year. If we’re ever back on campus, try one of the Impossible burgers at Malott Commons; it may just help prevent the next global pandemic.
Max Proctor CM ’22 is interested in understanding how nature will adapt to a rapidly urbanizing world. He has been doing disease ecology research with Professor Budischak at Keck, and up until very recently, he ate meat. He can be reached at email@example.com.