The COVID 19 pandemic has once again forced a rethink of prevalent food habits and their impacts on human health. The Chinese government was quick to shut down the wet-markets where live animals are slaughtered and sold, andfor good reason. In the past too, coronaviruses from mammals and birds, have caused widespread infections among human populations, with Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) being the last major global outbreak.
It is also a fact that many modern diseases including HIV, SARS, MERS, Zika, Nipah and Ebola, to name a few,are zoonotic diseases thatjumped from animals to humans. The global trade in animal products carry the inherent hazards of contamination with animal excrement, pus, blood, etc. The risks are multiplied in the extremely unhygienic conditions of wet-markets prevalent across Asia and Africa.
The latest viral outbreak from animal exploitation comes at a time when there is increased awareness of the benefits of a plant-based diet for human and planetary health. Numerous reports have been published about the health risks associated with the consumption of meat and other contaminated animal-origin products including dairy. Yet, the choice of food remains the most fundamental right of an individual, evolving within specific societal traditions.
Contrary to the popular belief that meat makes one healthy and strong, many of world’s top athletes have adopted a plant-based diet. The flood of endorsements by sportspersons has been backed by research; the findings of a major German study published last year found better nutritional adequacy in athletes following a plant-based diet.Studies from the Harvard Medical School support the claims that plant-based diets shorten recovery times, reduced muscle soreness, lessens joint pain and enabled quicker healing from injuries, contributing to career longevity.
To the uninformed, it might be a fad, but the vegan diet has probably existed for thousands of years without having a term to define it. The Brokpa tribe of Ladakh, for example, has thrived eating plant-based and dairy-free food for more than 5,000 years, that too in the harsh Himalayan terrain. Some portals have the Arab poet Abul ʿAla Al-Maʿarri (c. 973 – c. 1057) as the earliest known vegan among humans! Several vegan communities were in existence in the United States and England even during the 19th century.
Briton Donald Watson coined the term vegan when he published the first edition of ‘The Vegan News’ and co-founded the Vegan Society at London in November 1944. Veganism has evolved from the belief that humans can coexist with all other living beings peacefully. Vegans abstain from the consumption of any foods directly or indirectly derived from animal sources and adhere to a philosophy that rejects the commodification of animals. Thus, besides subsisting on a plant-based diet, vegans also avoid products of animal origin or those that are tested on animals, with compassion being a key factor for the growth of the vegan movement.
The antithesis comes from China; the horrifying images and videos from the wet-markets in the aftermath of the COVID 19 outbreak betray a dysfunctional mindset. The images of animals being skinned, boiled, burnt and even eaten while they are still alive will haunt humanity forever, connecting the meat industry to the horrific cruelty. Unfortunately, inhumane conditions and cruelty are common at slaughterhouses and animal farms everywhere.
In the dairy industry, newborn male calves are useless to dairy farmers, so they are taken away from their mothers within 24 – 72 hours of birth. If not killed and discarded immediately, they are sold into the beef industry and raised for their flesh. The veal industry would not exist if it wasn’t for the dairy industry. It might be a surprise for many thatIndia is still the third largest exporter of beef in the world.
The female calves are also taken away from the mother only a few hours after birth. Dairy cows are forcibly impregnated by artificial insemination and forced to produce up to ten times more milk than they would naturally. The overuse of their udders leads to painful infections such as mastitis, which can also cause pus and blood to be filtered into the milk that humans then drink. A cow with a natural life span of 25 years lives for only 5-7 years on a factory farm.
The production of meat and other animal products places a heavy burden on the environment. The vast amount of fodder required for meat production is a significant contributor to deforestation, habitat loss and species extinction. Making the switch to veganism one of the easiest, most enjoyable and most effective ways to reduce our impact on the environment.
The Veganism Impact Report from the UK revealed that there would be a 70% decrease in food-related emissions of CO2 if everyone were to go vegan, freeing up one billion hectares of the world’s land surface currently used for livestock.The 2010 United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) report by the international panel of sustainable resource managementadvocated a global shift towards a vegan diet to save the world from hunger, fuel poverty and the worst impacts of climate change.
The most pertinent question is whether human beings can live without consumption of animal products. The exponential growth of plant-based alternatives to popular food products, clothing and other utilities is an indicator of the change in mindsets among a significant minority. With environmental concerns taking root with the younger generations, the future of food is likely to be largely plant-based. In 2003, the Chinese government shutdown wet-markets and banned wildlife farming following the SARS outbreak, but it was soon relaxed owing to consumer demand. The COVID 19 outbreak is another opportunity for a reassessment of our priorities as a civilization. -** Rituraj Phukan is an environmental writer with personal experience of climate change impacts at the polar regions.He believes in making a personal commitment to solving the biggest environmental crisis to humanity and has been vegan for years