Eating more plants could prevent the next pandemic | Opinion

The solution is both incredibly simple and maddeningly complex: dramatically reduce human use of animals for food

Hens in cages at an industrial farm (Getty Images/Minnesota Reformer).

By Julie Knopp

Get vaccinated. Wear a mask. Eat plants?

Yes, eating more plants may be one of the most important actions we can take to protect ourselves from future pandemics.

The source of COVID-19 remains uncertain, but evidence suggests that the virus transferred to humans from a non-human animal. The CDC states that COVID “possibly came from an animal sold at a market.” Other sources have specifically cited wet markets or wildlife farms in Wuhan, China as the most likely origin of COVID’s cross-over to humans. COVID is one of many pandemics over the course of history that has been linked to a non-human source.

Most infectious diseases share a root cause: human consumption of animals. HIV originated in chimpanzees in Central Africa, and most likely passed to humans when hunters made contact with the blood of infected apes. Evidence points to North Carolina pig farms as the source of the H1N1 swine flu outbreak. Scientists have also traced the origins of the H5N1 bird flu to a chicken farm in China and SARS to a Chinese wild animal market. The list of viral outbreaks caused by close contact between humans and non-human animals is extensive.

Conditions in which animals suffer crowded, dirty conditions are especially threatening. According to public health expert Dr. Michael Greger in his book Bird Flu: A Virus of Our Own Hatching, “If you actually want to create global pandemics, then build factory farms.”

Humans suffer in meatpacking plants, too, where viruses spread easily between workers toiling in close quarters.

The solution is both incredibly simple and maddeningly complex: dramatically reduce human use of animals for food. Last year, following the global spread of COVID, China took a powerful mitigating action: banning the trade and consumption of wild animals for food. While conservationists note loopholes, particularly the trade of wild animals for medicinal uses, experts project this policy to reduce risk of disease outbreaks. To create a safer and healthier future, institutions and individuals around the globe must follow China’s lead and take actions that minimize the conditions that breed disease.

Institutions that serve food, including schools, hospitals and workplaces, can play an important role in preventing disease by shifting demand to plant-based foods. Plant-based foods put less strain on the environment, often result in better outcomes for human health, and avoid disease-breeding conditions like those in factory farms.

Following the lead of nearly two thousand schools in New York City and Los Angeles that have shifted towards plant-based meals, the Twin Cities’ own Richfield High School recently committed to 20% plant-based foods on the menu by 2024. Rush University Medical Center in Chicago and the University of Florida Health Shands Hospital in Gainesville have both added plant-centric menus in recent years. Most institutions making menu changes cite health or environmental reasons, but their decisions may also be pivotal in reducing demand for the conditions that could lead to the next pandemic.

Consumers are changing their dietary choices, too. A growing body of research suggests that the pandemic has accelerated the already rising trend in vegan, vegetarian and flexitarian diets.

A 2020 survey found that most consumers that moved towards a plant-based diet during the pandemic cited safety concerns as their main motivation, noting the troubling connection between animal agriculture and pandemics.

Arianna Feldman, a housing organizer in Minneapolis, is one of the individuals who reduced her consumption of animal products during the spread of the pandemic.

“The ways that we are relating to the non-human animals around us—there’s not a harmony happening there, and there has clearly been a pretty big consequence of that,” Feldman said.

By choosing more plant-based foods, consumers can play a role in reducing the intensiveness of animal farming and thereby limit the risk of disease outbreak.

In a strange twist of fate, humans have now passed the virus back to animals. Most recently, scientists found COVID infections in at least 30% of white-tailed deer tested in Iowa in 2020. Researchers have also found new coronaviruses in mink and bats. This troubling new trajectory of the pandemic could mean chaos for the fragile ecosystem that human existence depends upon. In some cases, the virus’ new trajectory among wild animals has already been traced back to human exploitation of animals for their fur or flesh.

Widespread implementation of vaccines and masks are critical to stop the spread of COVID-19, but equally essential to our survival is finding and fixing the source of the next deadly virus. The crowded conditions of animal farming and slaughter that breed zoonotic disease pose a serious threat to public health. This pandemic is a tragic and urgent invitation for institutions and individuals to take swift action towards a plant-based food system. The grim realities of the next pandemic hang in the balance.

Julie Knopp serves as president of the board of Compassionate Action for Animals in Minneapolis, Minn. She wrote this piece for the Minnesota Reformer, a sibling site of the Pennsylvania Capital-Star, where it first appeared.

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Capital-Star Guest Contributor
Capital-Star Guest Contributor

The Pennsylvania Capital-Star welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation on how politics and public policy affects the day-to-day lives of people across the commonwealth.