On Tuesday, musician, author, and noted vegan, Moby, tweeted:
“A reminder: in a vegan world there would be no pandemics. 100% of pandemics are zoonotic in origin. #veganforlife.”
While it’s might be easy to dismiss his statement as a celebrity weighing in on a subject about which he has no expertise, it is reasonable to question how our relationship to animals might be contributing to pandemics. Our current pandemic, after all, is hypothesized to be the result of a virus that jumped from an animal species to humans — likely a bat.
It’s unquestionably true that our relationship to animals plays a big part in whether or not pandemics happen, Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins University Center for Health Security, tells Inverse. But it’s not the physical consumption of the animal that’s usually the problem, Adalja says — it’s how we live and how the animal ends up on our plate.
“It’s not getting a chicken sandwich from Chick-fil-A that’s causing bird flu to be an issue,” Adalja says. “It’s the way we raise it.”
As humans, we’re animals on a planet with other animals — it’s inevitable that we’re going to interact with species other than our own. “You can get bitten by a raccoon and get rabies, not because you were going to eat it, but just because you happened to encounter it in the wild,” Adalja says.
In fact, there are a number of really damaging diseases that have nothing to do with eating animals, even though those diseases can be transferred through animal vectors. For example, malaria is transmitted by mosquitos and Lyme disease is transmitted from deers to humans by ticks. It’s the “no pandemics” element of Moby’s message that’s the most incorrect.
Can going vegan stop animal disease spread?
What matters more than eating animals is how we’re interacting with animals.
Although it’s true that most of the recent diseases found in humans in recent decades are pathogens that jumped from animals to humans, there’s actually a lot that needs to go right in order for an animal borne-pathogen to become a human pandemic.
There are a few hurdles any pathogen needs to be able to accomplish before it becomes a pandemic in humans, Adalja explains.
- It needs to be able to jump from an animal to a human effectively
- Once in the human, it needs to cause some kind of disease
- That disease needs to be contagious (humans have to be able to pass it to each other effectively)
Throughout history, there have been sporadic outbreaks that “came and went on their own” after a pathogen jumps from animals to humans, Adalja explains.
The difference now, he says, is how we live. And that’s more complicated than just whether or not we consume animals or animal products.
“As humans, we evolved to be omnivores,” Adalja says. “10,000 years ago, there were no vegans. There were also no pandemics.”
What causes pandemics
Other than the fact that many humans still eat animals, everything else about how we live has changed since 10,000 years ago. We transitioned from a hunter-gatherer society to an agricultural society. We started having more people living in one place and population density begins to increase.
Adalja says that humans also, “started going to the bathroom where they lived and domesticating animals.” But even then, we didn’t start seeing the really big pandemics until industrialization.
“10,000 years ago, there were no vegans. There were also no pandemics.”
That doesn’t mean there were no plagues (the plague of Athens might have something to say). But even the Black Death in the mid-1300s was largely the result of population density, urbanization, and people interacting with each other more — not animal consumption.
Now, we’re more packed into spaces than we ever have been. And while our hygiene and understanding and treatment of diseases is infinitely better than it was in the 1300s, there’s one really big difference that adds to our pandemic risk: how small our world has become.
“An outbreak that happens on one side of the globe can get to the other side of the globe before you have even noticed it,” Adalja says. “And that's what happened with Covid-19.”
Globalization, the rise of megacities, and increased population density have increased the rates and severity of pandemics more so than consuming animals and animal products, Adalja says.
Is there any link between eating meat and pandemics?
In some ways, yes. Our consumption of animals isn’t entirely unrelated to some pandemics, and, when it is related, it’s important to understand how we can change our behavior to minimize risk as much as possible.
Some studies suggest we could further reduce our risk of some pandemics by changing the way we farm animals. This is especially true for influenza viruses stemming from birds. A 2008 study looking at biosecurity and farming explains, “The high throughput and confinement of highly concentrated animal populations increases the intensity of microbial exposures for farmers, their families, farmworkers, veterinarians, and others in contact with these operations.”
A different study from 2008 stresses the importance of biosafety measures and educating workers, especially poultry workers, about best practices. The study, published in Public Health Reports, concludes:
“Critical components of worker protection include educating employers and training poultry workers about occupational exposure to avian influenza viruses. Other recommendations for protecting poultry workers include the use of good hygiene and work practices, personal protective clothing and equipment, vaccination for seasonal influenza viruses, antiviral medication, and medical surveillance.”
Adalja agrees. “Most of the time, those transmission events can be minimized if you just actually practice biosafety,” he says. “That might mean if you're butchering an animal, you’re washing your hands, or not doing it with open arms, or rubbing your eyes or doing whatever it might be.”
Global monitoring and transparency would also go a long way to preventing potential pandemics by stopping the disease locally before it has a chance to spread as much as Covid-19 did.
Meanwhile, there’s always tofu.