Veganism and COVID-19

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The COVID-19 lockdowns have shown that we are collectively willing to make very drastic changes to our lifestyles to save human lives. I agree that we should be prepared to make large changes to our way of life when many human lives are at stake. And I think that this tells us something very important about veganism. In fact, I think this tells us that we – we as a collective, a political community, a global society – should be vegan, or at least making every effort to transition towards plant-based diets.

On the face of it, there might seem to be little relationship between veganism and COVID-19. The virus is not spread by eating animal products, and nor is there any reason to believe that vegans are less likely to catch it. However, there are two important senses in which COVID-19 clearly is related to veganism.

The first is that COVID-19 originated, as best as we can tell, from a so-called ‘wet market’, where animals are kept and slaughtered for food. These environments, like factory farms, are prime breeding grounds for zoonotic diseases. These are diseases – like COVID-19, SARS, bird ‘flu, swine ‘flu, and more – that leap from nonhuman animals to humans. Of course, wet markets and factory farms would not exist if the whole world was vegan. This crucial point is being acknowledged, though sometimes only reluctantly, in the press. However, this link between veganism and COVID-19 is being made by both activists and academics in increasing numbers.

At the start of March – a few days before the first COVID-19 death in the UK – the vegan philosophers Paolo Cavalieri and Peter Singer called for a global ban on wet markets. ‘For the animals, wet markets are hell on earth’ – and, as COVID-19 (and other zoonotic diseases show), these wet markets can be terrible for humans, too. A ban on wet markets, then, is a chance to benefit both humans and animals.

On Easter Monday, David Benatar, a South African philosopher (and vegan), published a column in the New York Times called ‘Our Cruel Treatment of Animals Led to the Coronavirus’, in which he discussed how we could have prevented COVID-19, and how we could prevent similar outbreaks in the future. He argued that

Real prevention requires taking steps to minimize the chances of the virus or other infectious agents emerging in the first place. One of a number of crucial measures would be a more intelligent — and more compassionate — appraisal of our treatment of nonhuman animals, and concomitant action.

Cavalieri, Singer, and Benatar are all pointing to this first link between COVID-19 and veganism: If we were all vegan, there would be no wet markets or factory farms from which viruses could emerge.

This does not necessarily mean that there would be no pandemics. Health crises could emerge from other areas of human-animal contact, or emerge in ways completely unrelated to animals. But there is every reason to believe that a vegan world would be one with far fewer pandemics – and it would almost certainly be one without COVID-19.

There is, I think, another link between veganism and COVID-19, and one less widely acknowledged. COVID-19 lockdowns around the world show us that when thousands of human lives are on the line, we are collectively willing to make drastic changes to our lifestyles, affecting our day-to-day activities, our economy, our education systems, and much more.

Perhaps we should be willing to make another collective shift in our daily lives. Perhaps we should, as a society, as a global community, transition away from diets containing animal products, and towards veganism.

This shift towards veganism – like the COVID-19 lockdown – has the potential to save many, many human lives. First, it will severely reduce the threat of future pandemics, as discussed above. But second, it will severely reduce the threat of other human health crises associated with animal agriculture, like antibiotic resistance. Here is Benatar again:

In addition to future pandemics, we face the very real risk of breeding antibiotic resistance. The major contributor to this is the use of antibiotics in the animal agriculture industry, as a growth promoter (to bring animals to slaughter weight as quickly as possible) and to curb the spread of infections among animals reared in cruel intensive “factory farmed” conditions. … It is entirely possible that the human future will involve a return to the pre-antibiotics era, in which people died in droves from infections that have been effectively treated since the discovery of penicillin and other early antibacterial agents. … We, as a species, know about this problem, but we have not yet done what needs to be done to avert it (or at least minimize the chances of its happening).

Animal agriculture is also very bad for the environment, and this reveals a third set of reasons that a shift towards veganism will save human lives. Take greenhouse gases as an example. Greenhouse-gas emissions are contributing to the global climate crisis, which can, does, and will devastate human lives. A 2014 study led by Peter Scarborough – a population-health expert at the University of Oxford – found that, in the UK, the diet of a typical UK meat-eating adult (classified in the study as a high-meat diet) resulted in greenhouse-gas emissions 2.5 times that of a typical UK vegan.

So greenhouse gases are very bad for environment, and thus very bad for humans. Meanwhile, non-vegan diets are associated with very high greenhouse-gas emissions. Unsurprisingly, then, a shift to a vegan diet could save many millions of human lives in the coming decades due to the positive environmental impact. A 2016 study, led by Marco Springmann (another population-health expert at Oxford) found that a worldwide shift towards plant-based diets could result in up to 70% lower food-related greenhouse-gas emissions by 2050. This lowering of emissions, combined with the improvement of the healthfulness of diets (a fourth reason a shift towards veganism will save lives), could result – the authors calculated – in up to 10% lower mortality per year in 2050. The authors worked out that the economic benefit of this lower mortality rate could be up to US$31 trillion a year – or up to 13% of the global gross domestic product.

All of this shows just how many human lives are at stake in the collective decisions we make about what we should and should not be eating. And this is a collective decision. This is not just an individual decision about what we put in our mouths – this is a collective, political decision that has huge impacts on population health, mortality rates, and the economy.

Collectively, we have shown ourselves willing to make very drastic changes to our lifestyles to save human lives in response to COVID-19. We should, I believe, also be willing to make the much less drastic change of moving away from animal-based foods and towards plant-based diets to save human lives. And not only human lives. A widespread shift to veganism could, as I have argued, save many millions of human lives. But it would also save untold trillions of animals. What are we waiting for?

Dr Josh Milburn is a philosopher who is a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Sheffield. He is a member of the Research Advisory Committee of The Vegan Society. His research concerns political philosophy, animal ethics, and the philosophy of food.

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