Coronavirus has been the talk of the town for months now. It first arrived in Wuhan, China in December 2019. Since then many ‘origin’ theories have been making rounds. People have even alleged that it is some sort of a bioweapon. Although the exact origin of the virus is still a mystery, virologists and infectious disease experts say that they have enough evidence to show that the virus is brand new and comes from nature. To be more precise, the genetic sequence of the virus is 96 percent identical to that found in bats. It’s still unclear how the virus jumped species; perhaps through consumption of or exposure to an infected animal. All that’s known is its likely distant source was bats. The leading theory is that the virus went from a bat to a pangolin, before infecting a person. Hence, it is clear that the pandemic will have a significant impact on the meat industry.
The initial cases trace back to the Huanan Wholesale Seafood Market, a live animal market in Wuhan. Also known as a wet market, it is a place where live animals are slaughtered and sold for consumption. The unhygienic conditions in which the animals are housed serves as the perfect way for a virus to transmit between two species and ultimately infect a person, leading to an outbreak. Hence in the wake of the pandemic, healthcare experts are already asking for a major modification in the way the meat industry functions. Additionally, this is not the first time when an emerging disease jumped from wildlife to humans and turned into a pandemic.
There’s a long history of ‘zoonotic’ transfers, i.e. when a virus jumps from animals to humans. The infamous Bubonic Plague of the 14th century, i.e. the Black Death, was a bacterial disease that hopped from rodents to humans through infected fleas. The 1918 H1N1 influenza virus that infected one-third of the world’s population had an avian origin and the H1N1 swine flu outbreak of 2009 originated in pig confinement. HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, has been traced to a type of chimpanzee in Central Africa that was hunted for its meat. Both the Ebola virus and the SARS virus have the same origin as the current coronavirus, namely, bats. After going through these details of past pandemics, it seems preposterous that the meat industry throughout the world continued to function arbitrarily. Although the nature of disease emergence is unpredictable, there are lessons to be learned from the past in order to prevent such outbreaks in the future. It is important to understand the human-animal interface and identify the source in order to eliminate the chance of the virus’ re-entry.
Wet-markets are present all over the world. However, those in China offer a wide variety of animals and each one has the potential to carry its own viruses. The main reason behind such a wide range was the Wildlife Protection Law that designated wildlife as a natural resource which meant that it could be used for human benefit. The markets were closed with the SARS outbreak in 2003 and wildlife farming was banned. Nevertheless, within a few months, the government lifted the ban. This is a classic example of the complacency that usually grips the meat industry even after the spread of a pandemic.
Peter Li, an expert on China’s animal trade, explained that “the wildlife industry has an enormous lobbying capability that has allowed these markets to grow. The people behind this, the wildlife eaters, are the rich and powerful, a small minority that the government chose to favor”. And now the same situation presents itself again. The wet-markets were shut down on January 1, 2020, for inspection, but the virus had already started spreading by then. Organizations around the world are urging China to permanently prohibit wildlife trading, in order to stop future viruses. What actions would be taken are yet to be seen but this outbreak raises questions on the affluent lifestyle we live.
Currently, we respond to pandemics after they have already spread on a large scale. However, this ‘wait-and-respond’ approach is not sufficient. We need to contain the process that drives them and not just the individual diseases. The probability of zoonotic transmission of viruses increases with the increase in interactions with animals through hunting, trading, wet-markets, animal husbandry practices, and human’s insatiable desire to eat animals – domestic or wild. Experts concerned about such pandemics have long been raising alarms about the industrial farming of animals. Back in 2007, the American Public Health Association journal editorial observed, “It is curious that changing the way humans treat animals – most basically, ceasing to eat them or, at the very least, radically limiting the quantity of them that are eaten – is largely off the radar as a significant preventive measure.” In 2007, such a prescription might have appeared unrealistic. However, with the emergence of COVID-19, there has been a massive consumer rethink about food.
Healthy and organic eating are becoming increasingly important. According to surveys, there is likely to be an increase in vegetarian organic food. Meat exports in India declined by 12-15 percent, and with no major domestic consumption, processors are working at half their capacities. This could lead to the enhancement of the trend of ‘veganism’. Billions of animals are exploited for human gain, packed in small containers, and stuffed to get meat. Cutting out animal products like meat, dairy, and eggs, not only involves animal welfare but also protects the environment by reducing greenhouse gas emissions associated with animal agriculture. Even for the ‘meat lovers’, adopting a plant-based diet is easier than ever with the enormous uptick in innovation and availability of ‘plant-based meat’! No animal has to be hunted or farmed, and no disease has to be risked.
Made from ingredients such as soy, pea, or mycoprotein, there are numerous companies – Beyond Meat, Impossible Foods, Quorn – offering vegan ‘beef’ burgers, with strikingly similar appearance, taste, and texture as the traditional ones. Some companies have also started blending plant proteins with animal proteins, creating a hybrid product that is better for both the planet and health. Other than plant-based meat, ‘cultivated meat’ has also cropped up. It involves growing real animal meat from animal cells rather than animal slaughter. Although it is still in the testing phase, it has received a positive response from consumers and the federal government is preparing to commercialize it.
Moving away from animal-derived meat could potentially offer a chance to prevent future pandemics. It would be foolish to delay pushing forward solutions for what is likely the cause of the pandemic. There needs to be a systemic change in the meat industry after the dust settles from this pandemic. As Paul Shapiro said, “If we have the will to shut down our entire society for weeks on end, surely we have the will to slightly change our diets.”