It’s inevitable that people are looking to assign blame for COVID-19.
We’re living in a surreal time, experiencing personal and institutional disruptions that just one month ago would have seemed impossible and unimaginable.
Today, millions of people are isolated in their homes and practicing social distancing. The stock market has lost trillions, businesses are closing and basic life support systems are scrambling.
But rather than casting blame, we need to own it. This pandemic was born of destructive human behavior.
Our lives are deeply intertwined with other lives on Earth. We share biological material, including viruses, with other organisms. In fact, most of the cells in each of our bodies are not human, but made up of foreign DNA, including bacteria, viruses and fungi, which are concentrated in the microbiome of our digestive system.
Our health and wellbeing depends on mutually beneficial relationships with these microbes, as well as on mutually beneficial interactions with other animals and the earth. We suffer when these relationships are extractive and parasitic instead of symbiotic.
As tragic as this pandemic is, perhaps it will serve as a wake-up call.
Humans have exploited and obliterated natural ecosystems all over the world, replacing biodiversity and balance with extractive industries like factory farming and the live animal trade. Animals caught up in the destruction of these systems are forced from their natural habitats and with them comes the unleashing of viruses potentially deadly to humans.
By upsetting nature’s balance we are contributing to “zoonotic spillover,” which is the transmission of a pathogen from a vertebrate animal to a human (and a term that everyone should get familiar with, fast). This devastating transfer of viruses between species is the genesis of COVID-19. By some accounts there are tens of thousands of viruses that could potentially crossover, representing a global health threat that is poorly understood. These new unknown genetic strains are very difficult to combat and their impacts could be lethal. With the destruction of natural habitats for animal agriculture, these emerging pathogens that were once found deep in nature are more readily able to jump the species barrier between wild animals and humans.
A 2018 biomass survey published in the “Proceedings of the National Academy of Science” found that 96 percent of the mammals are either human or domesticated, while only 4 percent live in the wild.
Scientists say we are now living in the Anthropocene era, a geological epoch marked by human dominance that will be reflected in the fossil record by the prominence of plastic, as well as chicken bones — the remains of tortured creatures who have been genetically engineered to grow twice as large in half the time and which are mass-produced in factory farm warehouses.
Diverse and interwoven habitats have been lost, cleared to graze and grow feed for farm animals, and this has caused native species to disappear. Huge swaths of rainforest have been burned, adding to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the atmosphere, while also weakening our planet’s capacity for absorbing CO2. This exacerbates the climate crisis, which poses an existential threat. We are now witnessing more turbulent weather with fires and flooding around the world.
We are despoiling the earth and squandering precious natural resources, and industrial agriculture is largely to blame. Groundwater is being drained from aquifers, and iconic rivers, like the Colorado, no longer reach the coast. Tulare Lake in California, once the largest freshwater lake west of the Great Lakes and the namesake of America’s top dairy producing county, is gone. Monocrop fields and petrochemical inputs have replaced sustainable farming and healthy soils. Biocides are killing insects and microorganisms and disrupting natural cycles, while cows, pigs, chickens and other animals who have been genetically engineered are crowded into factory farms. These confined animals are so sick and stressed that they are routinely fed antibiotics, which leads to the development of potentially fatal antibiotic resistant bacteria. At the same time, oceans are being overfished and filling up with garbage, such that scientists predict that they will contain more plastic than fish by 2050.
Our actions have consequences, and when we abuse the environment and other animals, we undermine our own wellbeing. We have acted recklessly and rationalized gross misconduct, despite warnings from experts concerned about planetary health. We need to acknowledge and learn from mistakes, and then make adjustments.
Right now, we need to focus on immediate threats from COVID-19. We must respond by following social distancing measures and washing hands, while also doing what we can to protect those most vulnerable, health care workers and others on the front lines.
Ultimately, however, personal and planetary health and resilience can be best served by learning to live more kindly. Three out of every four new infectious diseases that sicken people come from animals, and these commonly emerge when we abuse other animals. We need to reshape our relationships to be more respectful and empathetic.
China’s ban on the country’s “wet markets,” including those in Wuhan — thought to be the source of the current COVID-19 outbreak — is a positive step, but it remains to be seen how stringently the ban will be enforced and whether or not it will be lifted once the virus is contained, as was the case after the SARS outbreak in 2003.
The wet markets of China aren’t the only breeding ground for disease, however. We also need to curtail factory farming, whose practice of cramming together tens of thousands of animals in unsanitary conditions is credited with causing the H1N1 swine flu outbreak of 2009. It killed hundreds of thousands of people around the globe, including over ten thousand in the U.S.
Agriculture needs a major overhaul. We can feed more people with less land and fewer resources by replacing animal farming with a plant-based food system. This would allow millions of acres to rest and recover, since animal production currently occupies ten times more land than plant-based agriculture in the U.S.
Shifting to plant based agriculture would significantly lighten our ecological footprint and allow diverse natural habitats to recover. Eating plants instead of animals also improves our health and reduces the risk of heart disease, diabetes and other chronic problems, which also increase our likelihood of dying if we’re infected with the coronavirus.
Our fate is inextricably linked to the health and resilience of the earth and our fellow earthlings, and when these are harmed and made to suffer, so are we. The good news is that just as the disease of cruelty can be contagious and spread, so too can compassion.
Gene Baur is the president and co-founder of Farm Sanctuary, a national farm animal rescue and advocacy organization.