Last month I learned enough from Ezra Klein’s food-related conversation with Mark Bittman to share the podcast episode. I listen to his podcast for the quality of his discussions with knowledgeable guests. But he is also a great essayist and yesterday he published an op-ed essay that is worth a read on a topic we have linked to many times:
It wouldn’t actually take that much of an investment for Biden to get us headed in the right direction.
I’m a vegan, but I’m also a realist. There’s no chance humanity is going to give up meat, en masse, anytime soon. That said, we can’t just wish away the risks of industrial animal agriculture. If we don’t end this system, soon, terrible things will happen to us and to the planet. Terrible things are already happening.
So this is going to be a column about finding a way to work with humanity’s growing appetite for meat rather than against it. All we need to do is replace the animals, or at least a lot of them. Technologically, we’re closer to that than you might think. What we need is for government to put money and muscle behind the project — just as it’s doing for electric cars and weatherized homes and renewable energy — so that the future happens fast enough to save the present. This is the hole in the American Jobs Plan, and it wouldn’t take much money, just a bit of vision, to fill.
Let me first lay out the urgency of the task and the rewards we could reap. As best we can tell, the novel coronavirus jumped from bats, to some other animal, to humans, with the locus of infection being a Chinese meat market. There’s nothing unusual about that. Swine flus — yes, plural — jump from pigs to humans. Avian flus jump from birds to humans. Ebola most likely came from monkeys. “Preventing the Next Pandemic,” a report by the United Nations Environment Program, estimates that 75 percent of the new infectious diseases that threaten humans come from animals.
The U.N. report goes on to name the seven major drivers of these emerging animal-to-human diseases. First is the increasing demand for animal protein. As populations get richer, they eat more meat. Since 1961, global meat production has more than quadrupled, to more than 340 million tons from 71 million tons. Americans are among the top meat consumers in the world: In 2018, each of us ate, on average, 222 pounds of red meat and chicken. Consumption in most other countries is far lower, but rising. In China, for instance, per capita meat consumption has more than doubled since 1990.
The more meat we eat, the more animals we need to raise. That brings us to the second driver of pandemic risk: the “intensification” of animal agriculture. There are still farmers who raise animals as our ancestors did, with respect both for their lives and for the land. But they’re the exception. To get the quantity of meat we eat, at the prices we want, has meant turning animals into technologies. They’re bred to gain weight fast, crowded together in sprawling industrial operations and pumped full of antibiotics to prevent disease.
These operations are petri dishes for viral mutation. The animals, whose immune systems are suppressed by stress and fear, fall ill easily, and every creature is a fresh opportunity for a virus to develop into a form humans can catch and then spread.
Viruses are not the only health risk from industrial animal agriculture, though. About 65 percent of antibiotics in the United States are sold for use on farms. These antibiotics are often, if not mostly, used to keep animals from getting sick, not to treat them once they’re ill. They’re then excreted in animal waste, where they make their way into waterways, into fish and into us. Antibiotic-resistant diseases are already killing 700,000 people a year worldwide. The U.N.’s interagency group on antimicrobial resistance estimates that could rise to 10 million per year by 2050. To put that toll in perspective, there are around three million confirmed deaths from Covid-19 so far.
The health risks of animal agriculture are compounded by the climate costs. Only 18 percent of the global calorie supply, and only 37 percent of the global protein supply, comes from meat and dairy. But about half of all habitable land on the planet is given over to agriculture, and more than 75 percent of that goes to animal agriculture.
This raises our disease risk. We keep encroaching deeper into the wilderness, bringing both our domesticated animals and ourselves into contact with new pathogens. But it’s also a huge driver of global warming: We’re cutting forests that were sequestering carbon and turning them over to cows, which emit tons of methane, a particularly potent greenhouse gas…
Read the whole essay here.