Meat consumption and global pandemics

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Meat consumption and global pandemics

women wearing flu masks, 1918

The 1918 influenza, which killed 150 million people, is believed to have originated on a poultry or pig farm in Kansas

Guest post by Dr. Martin Godwyn, originally published in The Flying Shingle, May 28, 2012:

If you were asked what is the greatest single threat to human life today, what would you say? Certainly, climate change would be a strong contender for that title…turning to a vegetarian or vegan diet is, for most of us, the simplest way to drastically cut our carbon footprint.  But many scientists today believe that there is an even bigger threat to humankind: a global viral pandemic.

To get a sense of just how serious the threat is, consider the fact that the carnage and horror of the first World War killed about 17 million people. Dwarfing that horrendous figure is the “Spanish flu” of 1918 (a version of the H1N1 virus that re-emerged in 2009), which wiped out up to 150 million lives – as much as six per cent of the entire human population!

Scary, huh? But what has any of this to do with eating meat? Whilst the origins of the 1918 flu have not been established with certainty, strong evidence suggests that it originated in either poultry or pigs who were raised for food in Fort Riley, Kansas, and then crossed the species boundary into humans. It is precisely when a virus moves between species that it is at its most deadly, for the new host species typically lacks either an evolutionary or acquired resistance to the virus.

But here is the good news: we really can do something about this threat by simply giving up eating meat. It is (fortunately!) very difficult for viruses to cross species boundaries, but the more frequently two species are in regular and close contact with each other, as inevitably occurs in animal agriculture, the easier it is. Given enough contact, it becomes inevitable.

In short, if, as a species, we continue to raise animals for food, it is simply a
matter of time before a mutation arises in a virus – perhaps in a pig or a chicken –that then crosses into humans, and which is both highly transmissible (as is the cold virus, by sneezing) and highly deadly (as is smallpox).

Now, it is of course possible that somewhere between first noticing a new and deadly strain of a virus and it becoming an uncontrolled global pandemic, we will develop an effective vaccine. Maybe.

But two factors militate against such optimism. Firstly, unlike in 1918, a virus
today can spread worldwide in a matter of days. A sneeze in Toronto on one day can be killing people in Delhi or Hong Kong within a week.

Secondly, some viruses staunchly resist the development of an effective vaccine. There is no vaccine for the common cold, for instance, and despite the billions of dollars and decades of research on HIV, a vaccine has yet to appear.

Yes, maybe we’ll be lucky – but do you really think that we ought to take the chance?

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