LETTER | If there are any lessons the recent Covid-19 pandemic has taught us, it is that deforestation, the exploitation and consumption of wildlife and intensive animal agriculture all increase the risk of zoonotic diseases and threaten human health and well-being.
Human society is 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 US and elsewhere, the sales of plant-based meat alternatives increased by over 200 percent during the coronavirus lockdown (Sources: US Food Navigator, the Financial Times, Bloomberg).
In the Netherlands, the mink fur industry went into an early shutdown after minks were found to have contracted coronavirus and transmitted the virus back to humans, and there are now calls to shut down mink farms in Spain and in the US as well.
It would be premature to celebrate these as victories. Humans have short memories, and human desires and appetites are often alarmingly disconnected from what the human intellect knows to be beneficial to human health, social justice and animal and environmental well-being.
Humans in general rarely question their relationship with non-human animals and the natural world, and this is attributable to speciesism, that is, the assumption of human superiority and an inherent ‘right’ to use, exploit, and consume animals.
In spite of the fact that scientific evidence and historical data strongly indicate that six out of 10 known infections and three out 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, with supporters of these industries arguing 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 that become obsolete have died out 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, and 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 Planet Earth’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. Humans’ sense of dominion and desire 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 eaten and 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, which then transmitted it to humans. The Nipah Virus became an outbreak because virus-infected fruit bats transmitted their virus to farmed pigs. Scientists believe that HIV has its origins in the hunting of primates in central African forests, while Ebola has been associated with hunting in Gabon and the Republic of Congo. Where there is the consumption of meat and the 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, consumption of beef in Malaysia rose from 23,000 metric tons to 250,000 metric tons. Between 1996 and 2015, consumption of poultry rose from 666,000 metric tons to 1.59 million metric tons.
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.
The 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 and can be safely enjoyed by everyone. 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 that 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 animals will reduce the number of animals that suffer great pain and misery and 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 the 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?
August 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.
The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, Selangor (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.
On this day of observance, we would like to encourage everyone to change how we 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 that remain in the animal agriculture system 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 is the Farm Animal Welfare Programme Manager for the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, Selangor.
The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.