IF there are any lessons the Covid-19 pandemic has taught us, it is that deforestation, exploitation and consumption of wildlife and intensive animal agriculture all increase the risk of zoonotic diseases and threaten human health and well-being.
Humans are aware of this link between animal exploitation and disease outbreaks, which is the reason why China announced a ban on wildlife trade in an effort to contain the Covid-19 outbreak.
In the United States and elsewhere, the sale of plant-based meat alternatives increased by over 200% during the coronavirus lockdown, according to media reports.
In the Netherlands, the mink fur industry went into an early shutdown after minks were found to have contracted coronavirus and transmitted it back to humans. There are now calls to shut down mink farms in Spain and the US as well.
It would be premature to celebrate these as victories. Humans have short memories, and their desires and appetites are often alarmingly disconnected from what their intellect knows to be beneficial to their health, social justice and animal and environmental well-being.
Humans in general rarely question their relationship with the natural world. This is attributable to speciesism - the assumption of human superiority and an inherent "right" to use and exploit animals.
Despite scientific evidence and historical data strongly indicating that six out of 10 known infections and three out of four emerging infectious diseases originate from animals, there is still widespread resistance against ending animal agriculture and the breeding of animals for the pet, sport hunting, entertainment and fur industries. Supporters of these industries argue that it would put too many people out of work and cause economic loss.
We know from the study of human history and civilisations that human society is resilient and adaptable, and that industries and occupations have become obsolete in the past without causing significant or lasting damage.
Racism is what makes Western society believe that China ought to be pilloried for its wildlife trade and live animal wet markets, but that it is perfectly all right to confine calves in small solitary enclosures and induce iron deficiency to produce veal, or to confine and force-feed ducks and geese and induce liver disease to produce foie gras.
Speciesism is what makes human society understand that animal agriculture puts a huge strain on the planet’s resources, that animals in farms and laboratories suffer in ways that are never considered acceptable for even the worst of humans to suffer, and that humans can live healthy and productive lives without eating or exploiting animals - and yet still choose to eat meat and maintain the status quo.
Speciesism is also the reason why people throw birthday parties for their dogs and cats and raise funds for tapirs and pandas, but think nothing of paying someone else to deplete our oceans and commit deforestation so that one can eat fish and steak - because the lives of certain species are valued over that of others.
Humans know that in order to prevent pandemics and environmental disasters, we need to stop exploiting and interfering with animals and the natural world, yet our speciesist bias means that we are unwilling to give up the pleasure that comes with eating and confining animals, destroying wildlife habitats and using animals for clothing, entertainment and sport.
The desire of humans to maintain the appearance of being the “master species” means that we continue to normalise violence and cruelty to animals and trivialise their pain and suffering.
To move forward into a cleaner, healthier, greener and kinder future, we need to ask ourselves some hard questions about our relationship with other species.
For too long, we have relied on the appeal-to-tradition fallacy that “humans have always eaten meat” as a justification to continue doing so. Just because something has always been done does not make it moral.
We can agree that no amount of normalisation can make slavery, domestic violence or human trafficking moral acts, so we are also capable of making the connection that just because we have always exploited animals, it does not make these acts moral, justifiable, or even essential to human health and survival.
Further, it is true that humans have always eaten meat, but it is also true that pandemics in the past have also been linked to the consumption and exploitation of animals. The 1918 Spanish Flu arose from the farming and consumption of pigs. Rabies in South America was transmitted by vampire bats to cattle that then transmitted it to humans. The Nipah Virus became an outbreak because virus-infected fruit bats transmitted the virus to farmed pigs.
Scientists believe that the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) has its origins in the hunting of primates in central African forests and Ebola has been associated with hunting in Gabon and the Republic of Congo.
Where there is consumption of meat and destruction of the natural world, there will be disease outbreaks.
We need to question not only animal agriculture and meat consumption but also the frequency and volume of meat consumption. As incomes and standards of living rise in Malaysia, our meat consumption also rises. Between 1981 and 2015, local consumption of beef rose from 23,000 to 250,000 metric tonnes. Between 1996 and 2015, consumption of poultry rose from 666,000 to 1.59 million metric tonnes.
Even if meat consumption was not a moral issue for people who lived two to three generations ago, it is imperative for us to ask ourselves now if it is necessary, appropriate, moral and harmless for us to continue to consume so much resources and inflict so much suffering, pain and death. The more meat we eat, the more intensive and cruel the animal agriculture industry has to become in order to be efficient and profitable.
Technology already exists for us to consume meat that does not cause animal suffering or harm our health or the environment. "Clean meat" grown from harvested stem cells is now reaching the scale of production in which it will soon be as affordable as animal-based meat. Producing meat in laboratories would require less water, land and grains than livestock farming and would significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Plant-based meat alternatives have already been in the Malaysian market for many years, and most of these products have obtained halal certification.
Further, thanks to advances in technology, much of the world including Malaysia has access to a wide variety of fruits, grains and vegetables, which can meet human dietary needs inexpensively.
Considering that we can get all the dietary nutrients and calories we need from non-animal sources, what’s stopping us from making the transition?
There is a growing population of vegans and animal rights advocates who hold the strong moral view that there can be no justification for harming animals. But even holding the moderate view that we should kill fewer animals for food and choose products and services that do not harm or exploit them would reduce the number of animals that are killed to satisfy human appetites.
Evolution has equipped all of us – humans and non-human animals alike – with an instinct to survive, thrive, procreate and avoid pain and misery. This provides us with a scientific foundation to argue that reducing the pain, suffering and misery of others – not only humans – is the moral, appropriate, rational and prosocial thing to do. If we can live happy, healthy and productive lives without harming others, why wouldn’t we?
Aug 29 is observed as the World Day for the End of Speciesism. It is a day for us to reflect on and challenge our long-held beliefs about the superiority of humans and how to relate to and regard non-human species.
SPCA Selangor, which has long been seen as an organisation working to protect and improve the welfare of companion animals such as cats and dogs, has since expanded its work to include advocating for improvements to farm animal welfare and for a plant-based lifestyle and ethics.
We would like to encourage everyone to change how they view and treat other species, take measures to reduce the suffering of other species, reduce the consumption of meat and animal products even if one cannot make the full transition to a vegetarian or vegan diet, support higher welfare standards for farm animals until the system can be reformed or abolished, question traditions and practices that exploit or harm animals, and choose products, services and practices that cause the least harm to others possible.
WONG EE LYNN
Farm Animal Welfare Programme Manager
Society For The Prevention Of Cruelty To Animals, Selangor