Climate Action

To help prevent pandemics, stop eating meat

Benjamin Cuker, Ph.D. is a Professor of Marine and Environmental Science at Hampton University, a Pew Fellow in Marine Conservation and the author of the soon to be published book by Springer Nature, “Diet for a Sustainable Ecosystem: The Science for Recovering the Health of the Chesapeake Bay and its People.”

Smithfield Foods CEO Kenneth Sullivan was dead wrong when he said, “For the security of our nation, I cannot understate how critical it is for our industry to continue to operate unabated.”

In truth, the tight packing of animals in concentrated feeding operations promotes the emergence of diseases that cause human epidemics. And the tight packing of people on the production lines in slaughterhouses promotes the spread of these infections. 

In other words, the meat industry is making us sick. To prevent the next pandemic, and to survive the current one, we must stop eating meat. 

The human experience with epidemic infectious diseases is a relatively recent phenomena, tracing to the beginning of animal husbandry about 10,000 years ago. While humans hunted for thousands of years before then, domestication of livestock meant much closer contact with animals and their diseases.  

And every known epidemic disease to plague humans originated in animals. These diseases that originate in animals are called zoonotic diseases, which span through history: The Rinderpest virus of cattle gave us measles; domesticated pigs gave us whooping cough; domesticated ducks produced influenza; and chickens hatched typhoid fever. 

These disease agents are microparasites, bacteria or viruses that reproduce in the animal host. The host releases the next generation of the diseases to infect a new individual. As is true of parasites in general, these infective agents co-evolved with their hosts so as to rarely kill them.  A parasite that kills its host population is soon without its next dinner. Such is the balance of nature. 

When a human encounters a virus it hasn’t coevolved with, however, the human has little defense against it. That’s why thousands of people are presently dying of a coronavirus, a disease that most likely originated in bats, jumped to another mammal and eventually to us.

The next big epidemic lurks around the corner, awaiting a novel zoonotic disease to jump from animal to human. Most recent epidemics originated from two sources: industrialized animal farming operations and deforestation.

The global poultry industry poses the biggest threat. Confining 30 thousand or more broiler chickens in a single building is a recipe for epidemic soup. 

And factory farms act as laboratories for antibiotic-resistant bacteria that infect and kill thousands each year. Factory farming of livestock consumes about 80% of the antibiotic used in the U.S. Mostly as a growth promoter, and secondarily for controlling bacterial diseases. Even if not lethal, such infections compromise health, making people more susceptible to other pathogens, such as COVID-19.

Eating the meat produced by these factory farms causes chronic diseases — obesity, type-2 diabetes, stroke, various cancers — that eventually kill outright, but also weaken a person’s ability to fight COVID-19 and other pathogens. Coronary artery disease is the number one cause of death in the U.S. and around the world. The disease is essentially absent in populations that don’t eat animal products.  

Meat and dairy production is also a leading cause of climate change, contributing over 14% to global greenhouse gas emissions. A warmer world creates an environment where viruses more easily spread, be it through migrating animals or warmer temperatures that keep disease-carrying vectors like mosquitoes alive longer.   

If everyone adopted plant-based diets, not only would greenhouse gas emissions plummet, but it would save millions of people from dying of heart disease and emerging infectious diseases each year.

Visit Earth Day Network’s Foodprints for the Future campaign to learn how you can make the change.