Let’s get this out of the way: Going vegan is not the way to put an end to pandemics. It seems silly that this need even be said, but, perhaps not unsurprisingly, the current coronavirus pandemic has been drafted as a new weapon in the war on meat and omnivores.
On March 13, just as citizens and governments in the U.S. and other parts of the world were starting to grasp the seriousness of the global pandemic, Wired published an article titled “Modernizing Meat Production Will Help Us Avoid Pandemics.” The article’s thesis is best summed up in the following paragraph:
"Both farmed and caged wild animals create the perfect breeding ground for zoonotic diseases. Extraordinarily high population densities, prolonged heightened stress levels, poor sanitation, and unnatural diets create a veritable speed-dating event for viruses to rendezvous with a weakened human host and transcend the species barrier. In fact, we know that this happens routinely—it’s a simple throw of the dice for one of these leaps to coincide with subtle adaptations that allow the virus to transmit more efficiently from human to human. Swapping host species often allows pathogens to take a more sinister turn, causing severe illness or death in their new host despite only triggering mild symptoms in their animal reservoir."
Everything in that quote is true (although there are other, possibly more inciting, factors that account for how the SARS-CoV-2 virus turned into a full-blown global pandemic, which we’ll get to in a minute). We agree that the farming industry needs to change. That’s why we’re proponents of regenerative agriculture, a return to the holistic way of interacting with our food and the rest of the environment that we evolved with—and that we’ve strayed from only in the last hundred years or so (long after many pandemics had come and gone). This way of farming—which involves grazing livestock the way they were always meant to be grazed, on grasslands, in harmony with the rest of the grassland ecosystem—will address the dangers of factory farming and feedlots without sacrificing human health by eliminating meat or increasing processed food consumptions.
Because that’s the danger in eliminating meat from the human diet: doing so would seriously damage the health of the human population. Certainly, a civilization threatened with a pandemic cannot thrive, but neither can one deprived of essential nutrients and supplementing with a diet of processed oils and carbohydrates.
SCIENCE vs. MYSTICISM
At this point, it seems almost a sure thing that SARS-CoV-2 originated at a wet market in Wuhan, China. Wet markets are animal markets where all sorts of animals, including many exotic ones, are sold, still alive. The nature of these markets means that animals of many different species are often stacked on top of one another in cages, and these conditions create an ideal opportunity for viruses to jump from one species to another, and eventually to humans. While it’s unknown for certain specifically which species, the consensus is that the consumption of one of the animals from the Wuhan market introduced the SARS-CoV-2 virus to the human population.
But as the New York Times pointed out in a February 20 article, there are two other crucial factors that led to the virus’s widespread propagation: 1.) a culture of mysticism surrounding the consumption of certain animals and animal parts in China, and 2.) the Chinese government’s tendency to suppress negative information and “punish the messenger.”
The governmental issues are beyond the scope of this article, and it is not our goal to criticize any country’s culture or religious beliefs. However, the mystical aspects of this virus’s origins provide some interesting parallels that we should consider when determining whether eliminating meat altogether is an appropriate response to this or any other virus.
The Times mentions the Chinese practice of “jinbu” (進補), which means “to fill the void” and asserts that it’s more prudent to treat a disease with food rather than medicine. From the Times:
"For men, it is most important to fill the energy void, which is related to virility and sexual prowess; for women, the stress is on replacing blood, which improves beauty and fertility. Rare plants and animals from the wild are thought to bring the best replenishment, especially when eaten fresh or raw. Winter is said to be the season when the body needs more “jinbu” foods. (Could that help explain why both SARS and the current epidemic broke out during that time of year?)
Hard-core believers in “jinbu” seem to buy into this notion, too: “Like-shapes eaten strengthen like-shapes” (以形補形), with the word “shapes” sometimes referring to human organs and their functions. Adherents count as favorites a long list of exotic foods — whose methods of procurement or preparation can be outright cruel, with some simply too revolting to describe here."
This belief in jinbu, which has no scientific basis, leads to the eating of animals like the palm civet (one of the prime suspects in the origination of SARS-CoV-2) to cure insomnia—or the bat (another key suspect) for improving eyesight. Jinbu also asserts that the healing properties of these animals are more potent if the animal is killed just before eating; thus, the animals are sold alive in the aforementioned wet markets.
It’s worth noting that the exotic, mixed-species nature of wet markets is an environment far different from even factory farms and feedlots, which host only one kind of animal in a given space. And of course, wet markets are a far cry from the environment of holistically managed ranges and farms. But we’re mentioning the practice here for a different reason: many of the arguments for eliminating meat from the human diet are steeped in their own sort of anti-science mysticism.
Humans have been eating animals since the beginning of our species. In fact, it was the consumption of meat by our Australopithecus ancestors 2.6 million years ago that triggered the growth of our brains and our evolution into Homo sapiens in the first place. We have ample evidence for this evolutionary fact, and we have little evidence that eliminating meat would benefit the species—in fact, we have an overwhelming amount to the contrary.
Meat, especially ruminant meat and its organs, are the most nutrient-dense and nutritionally bioavailable foods on the planet. Replacing them would require drastically increasing the world’s consumptions of grains and vegetable oils, as evidenced by last year’s EAT-Lancet study, which purported to outline the optimal human diet needed to reverse climate change but really just spelled out a recipe for dietary disaster and wide-spread metabolic dysfunction.
Speaking of climate change, the current coronavirus crisis has demonstrated how ill-prepared we are to combat such an existential threat. Eliminating meat would only serve to remove from the toolbox one of the best tools we have in combating climate change. Regenerative agriculture has been shown to be a net-positive for carbon sequestration. In February of 2019, Quantis International, a sustainability research group, completed a life-cycle assessment of White Oak Pastures, a regenerative farm, and found that White Oak Pastures beef has a carbon footprint 111% lower than the conventional U.S. beef system, meaning White Oak’s system captures soil carbon. More, better meat is a solution to climate change, not its oft-cited cause. If anything, the current near-global shutdown has demonstrated that transportation and manufacturing are the real causes of our climate predicament.
Conditions like metabolic disease, type 2 diabetes, and nutrient deficiency cause millions of deaths per year. If we eliminated meat to combat pandemics, we’d be drastically increasing this number, and pandemics would continue to happen, because there’s no way we could end all human contact with animals (nor would we want to, for doing so would damage the delicate ecosystem balance nature has evolved to thrive on).
There’s much more that could be said on this topic. Some of it would even make the striking case that eliminating meat would increase our susceptibility to virulent disease (for example, a recent study showed that low serum cholesterol levels may increase susceptibility to SARS-CoV-2; and in one ICU, of 20 COVID-19 patients requiring ventilation, all but one had diabetes or pre-diabetes (the remaining patient was undiagnosed). We could also point out that plant-based “meats,” like the Beyond Burger or the Impossible Burger, are themselves full of processed foods that are detrimental to human health, or that another oft-proposed replacement for eating animals, lab-grown meat, would contribute drastically to climate change.
But for now, we just want to say, if it isn’t obvious already, that we can’t sacrifice human health for human health. That math just doesn’t work.
How to otherwise address the problem of pandemics is beyond our expertise, of course, but we can assure you that the solution does not involve going vegan.