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On March 15, I uploaded a post to my Instagram that stated COVID-19 was caused because we eat animals. 

The post gained a lot of traction – including from people who believed that the post was wrong, and that the consumption of non-human animals had nothing to do with the current coronavirus pandemic.

USA Today

The traction on the post led to a journalist reaching out to me from USA Today who asked me to provide supplementary evidence for my claims, as he was going to run a ‘fact checking’ piece on my post. 

After providing the requested information, the article was then published, and my claims were rated ‘partly false’ and my Instagram post was censored as a result.

Animal exploitation and zoonotic diseases

However, the article itself does little to disprove the post, in fact overall it provides more evidence to support the post and backs up what I say by providing further examples to reinforce the argument that the exploitation of animals increases the risk of zoonotic diseases being passed to humans.

Before we delve into the article itself, it’s important to first look at the rating criteria to understand why such an evaluation was given. USA Today offers four different evaluations, these are:

True – the content in the item we fact-checked was supported by our research.

Partly False – some of the content in the item was not supported by our research.

False headline – the headline was false or misleading, though the content in the item was supported by research.

False – the content in the item was not supported by our research.

The now-censored Instagram post 

A small discrepancy

As such, to receive a ‘partly false’ verdict requires there to only be a small discrepancy in the eyes of the journalist. 

The main problem here is that even though the verdict logically implies the post is either partially or almost entirely true, it also implies that there is little merit to the claim the post makes. 

By allowing people to believe it is somewhat false, this can prevent an important discussion and allows for censorship to occur.

Furthermore, as you are able to see the verdict without reading the article itself, this immediately creates a negative impression of the post to anyone who sees it and discredits the information in the post, even though the overarching argument put forward in the post ultimately isn’t disproved or even necessarily disagreed with in the article.

Context

To give credit, USA Today not only reached out to me but they included a significant portion of what I had responded with in the beginning of the article. They also cite the World Health Organisation to support what I had stated regarding zoonotic diseases and also antibiotic resistance.

These quotes from my email correspondence with them are important because they clearly show that I have never stated that all zoonotic disease originate from animal exploitation and they also show that I also did not claim that it was the physical consumption of animals that caused COVID-19 to be passed to humans. 

Instead it was because ‘the exploitation of animals creates environments where the likelihood of spillovers occurring is significantly increased, and if we weren’t using animals for food we wouldn’t have created situations where many of these diseases, including the latest coronavirus, were passed to humans’.

It is believed the coronavirus started at a wet market in Wuhan, China (Photo: Adobe. Do not use without permission)

Animal exploitation

The article then goes on to say: “Zoonotic diseases happen when humans and animals are near each other. Common activities that can cause human-animal interaction include farming, hunting, ranching and keeping animals as pets. Human-animal contact is also heightened when humans encroach on wild lands.”

The journalist here cites four of the primary reasons why non-human to human interaction occurs, and all four of them exist because of animal exploitation. 

If we didn’t exploit animals then by default we wouldn’t farm, hunt or ranch them, and the pet industry would also cease to exist as we would be living by the ‘adopt to shop’ philosophy. 

Bear in mind also that the proliferation of zoonotic disease through the pet industry is linked to the incarceration of wild animals as pets and the global market for trading wildlife. 

Furthermore, one of the leading causes of encroachment on wild lands is animal agriculture, due to it involving vast amounts of habitat destruction. The most comprehensive analysis ever conducted exploring farming and the environment concluded that a shift to a plant based diet would free up 75 percent of global agricultural land. Land that could then be re-wilded and would ultimately reduce human encroachment onto wild lands.

Diseases and citations

The article goes on to say that ‘most of the diseases cited in the graphic arose in conditions where animals were being hunted or raised for human consumption’. The journalist then incidentally fails to mention which ones didn’t. Below is a list of all the zoonotic diseases I listed with a citation.

Ebola  The hunting of animals. Citation

vCJD  Eating cattle infected with BSE. Citation

Swine Flu  Traced back to US pig farms. Citation

Avian Flu – Poultry markets and farms. Citation

HIV – Hunting of chimpanzees. 

Citation: https://www.avert.org/professionals/history-hiv-aids/origin

SARS  Civet cat at a Chinese wet market.

Citation:  https://eu.usatoday.com/story/news/factcheck/2020/03/16/ coronavirus-fact-check-where-did-covid-19-start-experts-say-china/5053783002/

USA Today then add further evidence to support my claim by listing the Spanish flu from 1918 as another example of a pandemic that was traced back to animal farming. The Spanish flu incidentally killed 50 million people and is regarded as one of the worst pandemics of all time.

Rebuttals

It’s at this point the article then proceeds to try and provide rebuttals to my post. It starts by saying, ‘many zoonotic diseases, however, are not the result of human farming of animals’. 

This is disingenuous as I was quoted at the start of the article making that very same point myself, so to factor that into the article and into the reasoning for the final verdict is misleading and irresponsible, especially considering my original post never made the claim that all zoonotic diseases could be traced back to animal exploitation.

Irrelevant

Their next point is, “there are a handful of food-borne parasitic diseases that one can only get from eating undercooked or raw pork so if you stopped eating pork altogether, you’d never need worry about any of those,” said Dr. Stephen Felt, a professor of comparative medicine at Stanford University Medical Center. 

“But certainly, for zoonotic agents not transmitted through ingestion of infected meat, it would be difficult to claim with any certainty that the occurrence of these diseases would be reduced if humans began to consume less animal products,” Felt added.

Again, this is irrelevant to the argument I am putting forward. My argument has never been that all of these diseases are caused by the physical consumption of animals, but instead that exploiting animals creates environments where these spillovers are significantly more likely to happen

This argument is illustrated by the fact that viruses such as COVID-19 and SARS originated from wet markets, where the virus was passed to humans from animals because those animals were there to be eaten. 

The virus was passed to humans from animals at the wet market because those animals were there to be eaten (Photo: Adobe. Do not use without permission)

‘Obviously outrageous’

To brush this point aside is to claim that it is mere a coincidence that the virus originated from these markets and that the probability of a spillover would have been the same even if the markets didn’t exist, which is obviously outrageous. 

The chance of a bat coming into close contact with a pangolin, who then comes into close contact with a human, would be so infinitesimally small if we didn’t exploit both of these animals in the first place, thereby creating an environment where close contact between all three species is created.

The journalist himself even concedes this point by stating: “It is impossible to determine whether COVID-19 would have arisen without the existence of the wet markets or settings like it, but it is true that such markets supply the conditions for such diseases to arise and infect humans.”

Deeply flawed thinking

However, this is where the foundation of the ‘partly false’ verdict comes, as although it is undeniable that the proliferation of animal exploitation has caused these problems, it can’t be entirely ruled out that such an occurrence wouldn’t happen, even if the likelihood is tiny. 

This way of thinking is deeply flawed though, as I could claim that there isn’t a 25ft giant extraterrestrial standing on the surface of Venus and by the same logic you would have to rule that statement as ‘partly false’ as well, because of course there is an infinitesimally small chance that there actually is. 

So then the final rebuttal is that: “Reducing human contact with animals, however, is likely the most effective way to lower the risk of transferring pandemic-causing viruses and bacteria to humans from animal populations.” 

However, I would say that even that point adds more veracity to my original claim, as farming 56 billion land animals every year exponentially increases the amount of non-human animal to human contact. 

Furthermore, the argument of veganism being a preventive measure is actually the same as the argument about reducing contact, as the reason veganism would work in reducing these diseases isn’t just about stopping the physical consumption, it’s more about stopping the environments where contact between animals and humans occurs. 

So in essence the main rebuttal to the post is actually the same as the main argument for the post, which is that reducing contact is the best measure for reducing zoonotic disease.

Censored

Ultimately, using the most up to date information, what we know is that COVID-19 started in a wet market where animals were being traded for food. If people didn’t eat animals then that wet market wouldn’t exist. If the wet market didn’t exist then COVID-19 would not have been transferred to humans.

In the end the post has been regarded as ‘partly false’. However, the real problem lies in the censorship that this verdict has created. If a user had to read the article before seeing the verdict this would be less problematic as the article itself, although it includes fallacies, also substantiates my argument as well. 

The real issue is that now when someone sees the post all they see is the the post contains ‘partly false’ information, and although they have the choice to click through to read the article, many won’t and will instead form their opinion on that statement alone.

Stifling debate

This has ultimately stifled open public debate, which irrespective of any individual’s feelings towards the post, is a dangerous and unfortunate thing. 

Especially considering the post is not promoting a conspiracy theory and cites experts such as the WHO, the FAO and OIE and the journalist who provided the verdict even put forward further examples to support the argument presented by my post, even stating, ‘it is true that such markets supply the conditions for such diseases to arise and infect humans’.

In times of crisis, it’s important that we discuss how to prevent something similar from happening again in the future and so this might well be an uncomfortable truth, but it’s an uncomfortable truth that could save millions of human and non-human lives throughout the future. 

So let’s hope that this conversation can keep going, as it is absolutely crucial, now more than ever, to have important dialogue that can create mass positive change for both humans and non-humans alike. 

Ed Winters

Ed Winters (Earthling Ed) is a vegan educator, public speaker and content creator based in London, England. Winters is the co-founder and co-director of Surge, an animal rights organisation determined to create a world where compassion towards all non-human animals is the norm. In 2016 Surge founded The Official Animal Rights March which succeeded in a growth from 2,500 participants in London in 2016 to 41,000 participants across the world in 2019. Winters has spoken at over 1/3 of UK universities...