There is an important connection—one that is both strong and disturbing—between animal agriculture and the current pandemic.
It is a connection that might not immediately occur to you.
Human beings are coming into closer and more frequent contact with wild animals—and the viruses they carry—as we chop down forests and jungles. And although a number of factors are driving deforestation, the number one cause is animal agriculture.
This is because of the obscene inefficiency of animal agriculture. Not only is a vast amount of living space needed for the animals, particularly cattle, but even a greater amount of land is needed to grow their food.
An all-too-familiar scene in the U.S.: Forests and native grasslands obliterated to grow soy — for livestock feed.
As a result, more than 60% of the deforestation in the world is attributable to animal agriculture, according to the World Preservation Foundation. Simply put, trees are being cut down left and right to clear land for growing food for livestock.
“It’s not OK to transform a forest into agriculture without understanding the impact that has on disease emergence,” Kate Jones, chair of Ecology and Biodiversity at University College London, recently told CNN. “You can’t do those things in isolation without thinking about what that does to humans.”“It’s like if you demolish an old barn then dust flies. When you demolish a tropical forest, viruses fly,” said science writer David Quammen, author of the book Spillover. “Those moments of destruction represent opportunity for unfamiliar viruses to get into humans and take hold.”
Huge swaths of the Amazon rainforest are being chopped down to clear land for grazing cattle and growing livestock feed.“Deforestation forces those wild species that hang on to cram into smaller fragments of remaining habitat, increasing the likelihood that they’ll come into repeated, intimate contact with the human settlements expanding into their newly fragmented habitats,” science journalist Sonia Shah wrote in The Nation. “It’s this kind of repeated, intimate contact that allows the microbes that live in their bodies to cross over into ours, transforming benign animal microbes into deadly human pathogens.”
In China, where the Covid-19 and SARS viruses emerged, the explosive growth of industrial-scale, U.S.-style animal agriculture has pushed small farmers into the periphery, where they are coming into increasing contact with bats.
That’s significant, because bats are believed to be the main carriers of the Covid-19 and SARS viruses.
“As industrial farming concerns took up more and more land, these small-scale farmers were pushed out geographically—closer to uncultivable zones. Closer to the edge of the forest, that is, where bats and the viruses that infect them lurk,” The Guardian wrote in March 2020.
“It’s true, that an expanding human population pushing into previously undisturbed ecosystems has contributed to the increasing number of zoonoses—human infections of animal origin—in recent decades,” The Guardian continued. “But behind that shift has been another, in the way food is produced. Modern models of agribusiness are contributing to the emergence of zoonoses.”
All this points to the need to shift to veganism, which requires far less land to accommodate. A 2018 study from the prestigious Weizmann Institute of Science showed that to produce an equivalent amount of protein, poultry requires twice as much land, and dairy products require four times as much land, compared to the components of a plant-based diet.
As more and more individuals transition to vegan lifestyles, we will approach a tipping point where we’re replanting forests rather than ripping them down. And then we’ll be able to keep our distance from the viruses that are lurking inside wild animals.