My first visits to wet markets in Equatorial Guinea and India were overwhelming.
The sounds of vendors yelling and trying to convince me that their meat was the freshest were drowned out only by the sights of live fish piled high in buckets and struggling to breathe, chickens stuffed in cages too small for them to move, carcasses of monkeys I’d seen only in zoos, and vendors killing chickens and fish mere feet from where I stood.
Like me, you are probably used to seeing meat in clean cellophane-wrapped packages. Like me, you probably thought that our Western food system was more sanitary and less likely to create or spread disease than those wet markets. But is it?
As I write this, COVID-19 continues to deeply impact our lives. The new coronavirus causing the pandemic is suspected to have originated in bats and may have been transmitted to humans by pangolins in a wet market like the ones I’ve visited.
There have now been more than 857,000 confirmed cases worldwide and over 42,000 deaths. Government leaders have issued ‘stay home’ orders to try to slow the spread of disease.
The world will forever be changed. While so many have and will continue to suffer, I can only hope that we learn from this tragedy and that my children and grandchildren will look back on this time as a pivotal moment that changed the way we treat animals.
We have long known that diseases can jump from wild animals to humans, with disastrous effects. In the early 20th century HIV mutated from SIV and jumped to humans through the hunting and butchering of wild primates for the African bushmeat trade.
HIV has now killed 32 million people. The SARS outbreak of the early 2000s was caused by another coronavirus that likely originated in bats and that humans may have contracted in wet markets. SARS ultimately killed 774 people.
But did you know that farmed animals like pigs and chickens can also carry pathogens that cause disease in humans? ‘Mad cow’ disease, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy, resulted in the killing of 4.4 million cattle in the U.K. to stop the spread of the disease to people.
In the H1N1 influenza pandemic of 2009, which we believe originated in pigs, 60.8 million people in the United States were infected and 12,469 died. To date, the virus has killed 75,000 Americans. Avian influenza, which spreads quickly in chickens, continues to mutate and cause disease in poultry farms around the world.
If the right mutation occurs, these viruses could cause yet another massive pandemic among humans. Is it only a matter of time before a new avian influenza mutates and causes a pandemic like the animal-borne 1918 flu that killed 50 million people?
‘Insatiable appetite for meat’
Whether we are eating primates, pangolins, cows, chickens, or pigs, our insatiable appetite for meat has triggered outbreaks that have killed millions of people.
We are living history right now, and we can change its course. We are all in this together, and we have a responsibility to protect everyone who shares this planet.
Now is the time to dramatically reduce our meat consumption and work together to build a more sustainable, compassionate, and healthy food system.