While many people are looking for ways to counter the health crisis we are experiencing or to mitigate its effects, others are thinking about how to prevent future pandemics. The loss of biodiversity and meat consumption are being singled out. Are animal advocates right to use the links between COVID-19 and animals to promote veganism?
The pandemic, animals and vegan activism
Several of the first humans to contract 2019-nCoV (now known as SARS-CoV-2) attended a “wet market” in Wuhan, China. Live wild animals were sold there and then slaughtered on the spot, at the request of selective consumers who desire the taste of their flesh or derive ingredients used in traditional Chinese medicine. In this market, animals belonging to species that rarely cross in the wild were piled up in cages that were themselves stacked on top of each other. As Dr. Christian Walzer of the Wildlife Conservation Society explains, “you have a bird pooping on a turtle that poops on a civet,” which encourages the transmission of microbes, viruses, bacteria or parasites that, while harmless to the animals who carry them, can make other animals sick. Bats are believed to have first transmitted this strain of coronavirus to an intermediate animal – perhaps a pangolin, an animal from an endangered species traded illegally for its meat and scales – which then infected market visitors before spreading (in an era of globalization where the movement of people and goods knows no bounds) through the entire world’s human population.
Few experts doubt the link between the consumption of meat from wild animals and COVID-19 disease. However, a similar link also applies to different pathogens and other forms of animal exploitation. These include coronaviruses that have caused MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome) or SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome), but also Ebola, which humans have contracted from bats in the context of the while poaching in the context of the international trade (legal and illegal) in wildlife.
Livestock farming as a threat to human health
The destruction of the natural habitats of animals and the loss of biodiversity are, however, the main issues pointed out by specialists. Virologists and ecologists alike state that these are the main causes of two thirds of zoonoses, i.e. diseases transmitted to humans by non-human animals. However, these factors are also closely linked to the exploitation of animals, especially breeding them for food. A World Bank report on deforestation in the Amazon states that “91 percent of the increment of the cleared area has been converted to cattle ranching” (p. 9). In addition, all clear-cutting is being used to free up space for soybean plantations, 70-75% of which will be used to feed livestock. As the forest recedes, the more the wild animals who live in it become concentrated along the edges of the fields. They urinate on the fruits or grains we eat or give to our companion animals (who then act as “gateways” and “amplifiers” for pathogens that can be transmitted to us through a process of mutation).
Animal husbandry is not responsible for the emergence of zoonoses only indirectly. It is itself the cause of several of the most deadly epidemics we have known, such as BSE (Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy or “mad cow disease”), H1N1 (“swine influenza” including “Spanish flu”) or H5N1 and H7N9 (“avian influenza”). The fact is that with the intensification of breeding methods, farms (even organic ones) become formidable incubators for pathogens. As biologist François Renaud explains about H5N1, “industrial breeding has created the conditions for its success, thanks to an exceptional concentration and the promiscuity of birds that favors the transmission of the virus. The passage to humans, despite the inter-species barrier, was eventually made possible due to this concentration of poultry in a single place and the degraded sanitary conditions”. The same scenario would have occurred, he adds, in 2009 with the appearance of H1N1 in pig farms in Mexico.
Then, as we read in an article in Le Monde diplomatique, “the mountains of dung produced by our livestock offer other opportunities for animal microbes to infect people. Since there is infinitely more waste than farmland can absorb in the form of fertilizer, it often ends up being stored in leaky pits – a haven for Escherichia coli bacteria,” causing bloody diarrhea, fever and acute kidney failure in humans. “And because it is not uncommon for animal feces to enter our drinking water and food, 90,000 Americans become infected each year.”
In order to control the considerable risks posed by concentration farming and more generally to increase the productivity of the industry, animals are administered high doses of antimicrobials. This practice significantly promotes the development of resistance of microorganisms to antibiotics, antivirals or antimalarials, which represents a public health problem that, according to the World Health Organization, is responsible for the death of 700,000 people each year.
Health arguments put forward by animal advocates
All this leads many animal advocates to believe that the best way to reduce the likelihood of future crises like the one we are experiencing would be to stop eating or otherwise exploiting animals (including hunting) and to protect their natural habitats by putting a stop to colonizing or polluting them. Élodie Vieille-Blanchard, president of L’Association végétarienne de France, concluded a panel discussion on the subject by arguing that “the livestock industry poses risks that are largely inconsiderate of the human population, but remains maintained at all costs by means of subsidies, advertising and political support for the opacity of the industry. These risks, according to the philosopher Michael Huemer, are even more unfairly imposed on people who, by abstaining from animal products, do not contribute to increasing them. Are activists who are concerned about animals and their individual interests right to insist on the risks that their exploitation represents for human health?
Within the vegan community itself, there is a lively debate about the best activist strategies to adopt. Many believe that anything that can encourage a step in the right direction should be encouraged. Often claiming to be pragmatic, these animal activists favour a wide variety of tactics, including making demands for modest improvements in farming conditions or using anthropocentric arguments (based on the benefits of a plant-based diet for human health or for the environment in which the future generations of human beings will find themselves, for instance). They say that nothing is ever done but in stages and that animals are indifferent to the reasons why we should abolish their exploitation, as long as we do so. Finally, they recalled that when people initially reduce their meat consumption for reasons that are independent of concern for animals, they are then more open to arguments for animal ethics.
Others, on the contrary, believe that it is better to make no compromises, and to demand no less than what justice demands for other animals. In their view, we should not underestimate people’s ability to grasp animal justice issues and hide our true ambitions. The priority is to shake the pillars of the speciesist or carnist ideologies on which animal exploitation is based. And to achieve this, we need to put nonhuman animals at the center of activists’ political discourses and actions. The most promising way to break with human supremacism and achieve the abolition of animal exploitation will not come about, they argue, through the promotion of human interests. Such a strategy would not only be ineffective, but as morally dubious as a campaign to end domestic violence focusing on the need for women to be healthy so that they can work and contribute to the flourishing of the economy.
For abolitionists who see it as our duty to denounce the exploitation of animals in the name of justice, it is not an option to focus on the fact that a vegan world where epidemics that threaten human beings have (almost) disappeared. And among these people, those who hope for a zoopolis also worry about the effects of a strategy describing nonhuman animals as “reservoirs” of viruses or parasites, or beings carrying harmful microbes. Annaelle Jacques-Morel, an activist from Montreal, argues on social networks that a world in which humans no longer eat animals would not be free of contact with them. On the contrary, domesticated animals, if considered as our fellow citizens, would have much more access to public spaces and it would obviously be prohibited to exterminate rats that might venture into restaurants or food markets. Presenting animals as dirty, disgusting and dangerous to human health could certainly motivate us ban wildlife animal trade, close down “wet markets”, and even improve the sanitary conditions of factory farms, but it could also encourage us to kill animals rather than finally giving them a fair moral and political status. This is apparent in past actions taken to contain epidemics, i.e. mass slaughter of pigs or birds suspected of carrying a virus.
For many animal advocates, it is therefore both inappropriate and unwise to use the argument of epidemiological threat to advance the cause of nonhuman sentient animals. In this, they join all those who consider it indecent to use the immense suffering of the victims (direct or indirect) of COVID-19 to advance the environmental or animal cause. Especially when this has the effect of fostering racism towards the members of the communities in which the virus is believed to have begun to spread.
On the other hand, one may wonder whether it is really necessary to choose between animal justice and human health considerations. Can’t we sincerely care about one as much as the other? To rejoice in the misfortune of some because of the benefits it could help bring about for others would obviously be revolting if people came. That said, nothing seems more appropriate in the current situation than to reflect on ways to avoid new pandemics while keeping in mind other ethical issues. The treatment of other animals and the destruction or preservation of their habitats can have important consequences for human public health. It is imperative that this be recognized and taken into account. But how we behave towards other sentient individuals is also an issue of justice. And animal advocates are right to point this out. Fortunately, there is no need to choose what should be privileged since, as the signatories of a recent column in the French newspaper Libération noted: “the present health crisis and those to come see the vital interests of humans and animals converge“.
Acknowledgements: Thanks to Christiane Bailey and Vincent Duhamel for their useful comments and Dave Burt for his help with the translation of this blog post.
Crédit photo: José Ignacio García Zajaczkowski.