Our best hope for avoiding another devastating outbreak is to switch to ‘clean meat’.
BY now, Covid-19 is humanity’s public enemy number one and governments are working furiously to contain its spread.
In our part of the world, in a recent Special Asean Plus Three Summit, the leaders of the Asean nations – China, South Korea and Japan – met via video conference to mount a collective health and economic response.
That’s an admirable united stand in stark contrast to US President Donald Trump’s vitriolic blame-and-shame attack on China and the World Health Organisation.
I absolutely reject conspiracy theories that the coronavirus was made in a Wuhan laboratory and was somehow released, or that it is a big pharma sinister plot to push a panicked world into developing a vaccine that would bring in millions of dollars in profits.
What I do accept is Covid-19 is man-made in the sense of how we have brought it upon ourselves because of our population explosion and food demands, specifically for meat.
Viruses, like bacteria, are very much part of just about everything and just as there are good and bad bacteria, there are good and bad viruses.
(I was gobsmacked to learn that if not for a virus, mammals, including humans, would still be laying eggs! You can find out more from the NPR podcast, How The Placenta Evolved From an Ancient Virus.)
In H.G. Wells’ 1898 sci-fi novel, The War of the Worlds, a virus (or bacteria) was humankind’s saviour because it killed the Martian invaders, which had no immunity to the microbe.
Wells wrote: “These germs of disease have taken toll of humanity since the beginning of things – taken toll of our pre-human ancestors since life began here. But by virtue of this natural selection of our kind we have developed resisting power; to no germs do we succumb without a struggle.”
Indeed, humankind must have had many epic struggles with viruses because scientists have discovered that significant chunks of the human DNA are remnants of ancient viral infections.
Through the aeons, we have encountered many zoonoses – diseases caused by viruses or bacteria that jump from animals or insects to humans – that include rabies, anthrax, the plague, malaria, dengue, Zika, avian flu and swine influenza and our very own Nipah virus, which first appeared in 1998 in Negri Sembilan pig farms.
So why has Covid-19 unleashed such an earth-shaking pandemic?
Infectious disease expert Dennis Carroll, who was featured in Netflix series, Pandemic, knows why.
He spent a decade leading a US-funded programme called Predict to hunt for unknown viruses in animals around the world that had the potential to emerge.
He tells Nautilus, an online science magazine: “Whatever future threats we’re going to face already exist. A large pool of viruses are circulating (in wildlife) and we don’t become familiar with them until we see a spillover event and people getting ill.”
Studies have shown the rate of spillovers has jumped two to three times in the last 40 years and is still increasing because “the frequency of interaction between people and wildlife is happening at a scale never before seen”, says Carroll.
He adds: “We’ve calculated based on historical evidence that we’re looking at two to four new zoonotic disease threats emerging every year. So, it should not come as a surprise that today we’re talking about the Covid-19 virus.”
He points out that 100 years ago, there were only 1.8 billion people on Earth. Today, the figure is almost eight billion.
“With that comes all of the livestock and animal production to feed the human population. We’ve expanded our cities, our settlements, our agriculture into wildlife areas, ” he says in another interview with Kaiser Health News.
Carroll cites the avian influenza in the 2000s as a direct consequence of how much poultry was being produced to feed people.
Today, China alone produces 15 billion to 20 billion poultry per year. Compare that to the few hundred million poultry produced in the 1960s.
It’s the same virus-friendly meat-producing scenario replayed across the globe which is a consequence of more people and more purchasing power.
“One of the things we know about household purchasing power is that when you have disposable income, you’re going to move from a root- or grain-based diet and try to get animal protein, ” says Carroll.
He estimates there are 1.67 million viruses on Earth of which 631,000 to 827,000 have the potential to infect people.
So if we hope to avert another global pandemic, we must eliminate existing zoonotic flashpoints and not just develop vaccine after vaccine.
That’s why I support Good Food Institute’s science and technology associate director Liz Specht’s call for a reinvention of how we grow and slaughter meat.
As she opines in a wired.com article: “Governments are pouring immense resources into therapeutic and vaccine development programmes in a frantic attempt at damage control for the current outbreak. But none of this will prevent the next, and potentially even worse, pandemic.”
Instead, she says: “It’s time to admit that we, as a civilisation, have outgrown the dated notion of using animals to produce meat. Hunting and animal farming served their purpose for millennia of human population growth.
“But in 2020, we need to be brutally honest with ourselves. We can’t keep doing this. The current system is broken. It is inefficient, insecure, unsustainable and extremely unsafe.”
She adds that the solution is already available: moving to plant-based and cultivated-from-cells meat products which can remove the food insecurity and zoonotic disease concerns inherent in animal-based food.
We can expect horrified protests from the anti-GMO (genetically modified organisms) activists who cannot accept the fact that practically every single plant and animal we humans eat has had its genes altered through selective breeding and hybridisation by farmers and scientists.
Despite such objections, I think the “clean meat” revolution, as it has been dubbed, will take off because there is growing public acceptance of alternatives and rising revulsion against rearing and slaughtering animals for meat.
Besides, as Specht says, the joy of eating meat is increasingly recognised as a sensory experience brought about by the combination of specific amino acids, fats, and minerals rather than by its means of production.
Therefore, she adds, “No animal has to be farmed or hunted and no disease has to be risked to enjoy a juicy burger or a crispy nugget.”
The United Nations has already stated that raising and killing animals for food is “one of the major causes of the world’s most pressing environmental problems, including global warming, land degradation, air and water pollution, and loss of biodiversity”.
We saw how in just 100-plus days of the Covid-19 pandemic when the world practically came to a stop, our environment, especially air quality, improved drastically.
My hope is that governments will not only ban wildlife trafficking and exotic meat markets but see the sense in putting in place the funding, legislation, safety standards, infrastructure and public education for clean meat.
Specht likens the draconian lockdown measures and travel restrictions against Covid-19 to shutting the barn doors after the horses have bolted.
So rather than repeating the same mistake of trying to close the doors after the horses have run off, she says we need to build a better barn.
I would add we had better do it fast as the Covid clock is ticking.
The views expressed here are entirely the writer’s own.
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