Imagine a world where facts changed minds. The United Nations, governments and everyone with influence would now be saying we should abandon meat or at a minimum cut down on consumption. Perhaps my reading is not as wide as it should be, but I have heard nothing of the sort argued. Making the case would be child’s play and would not be confined to emphasising that Covid-19 probably jumped species in Wuhan’s grotesque wet markets. The Sars epidemic of 2002-04 began in Guangdong, probably in bats, and then spread to civet cats, sold in markets and eaten in restaurants. The H7N9 strain of bird flu began in China, once again, and moved to humans from diseased poultry.
The question is: can we somehow transcend the powerfully ingrained meat culture and re-invent our relationship with animals.
Zoonotic viruses almost always leap to humans directly from our livestock or from wildlife, the slaughter and hunting of which bring susceptible human hosts in particularly close contact with live animals and their infected tissues and fluids.
Both farmed and caged wild animals create the perfect breeding ground for zoonotic diseases. Extraordinarily high population densities, prolonged heightened stress levels, poor sanitation, and unnatural diets create a veritable speed-dating event for viruses to rendezvous with a weakened human host and transcend the species barrier. In fact, we know that this happens routinely—it’s a simple throw of the dice for one of these leaps to coincide with subtle adaptations that allow the virus to transmit more efficiently from human to human. Swapping host species often allows pathogens to take a more sinister turn, causing severe illness or death in their new host despite only triggering mild symptoms in their animal reservoir.
Vegans are often unreasonably mocked as do-gooders and sniped at for making dinner parties awkward for those who don’t like lentils quite so much. This is unfair: the diet does do the world good and if vegans provoke their friends into going vegan too, so much the better.
There is now a great deal of convincing data that breeding animals for food dirties the air and chews up the earth. One recent peer-reviewed study from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine calculates that should the world go vegan, annual greenhouse gas emissions would halve and the new land used every year for each person would near-halve. The diet is also healthier: some meat products have been linked to cancer and saturated fat from meat and dairy products can cause heart disease. A study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA predicts that global veganism would lead to 8.1 million fewer deaths per year.
Vegans should be encouraged: their choice is high in moral as well as digestive fibre. Their detractors should stop crying over spelt milk.
Okay, it is the Guardian newspaper, so very far to the progressive end of the mainstream. But still, on the edge of the mainstream. I am noting this as a milestone.
In my recent Outside story about sustainable eating I didn’t get into the question of whether foods which are easier on the planet are also healthy (or healthier). So this Washington Post story, which looks at whether there is scientific consensus or disagreement, on a number of dietary choices, caught my eye.
Check out this summary chart. Looks to me as if there is pretty solid scientific consensus on the health benefits of a more plant-based, low environmental footprint diet.
It reinforces what I believe about plant-based foods. They are a three-fer: 1) Good for you; 2) Good for the planet; and 3) Good for animals.
I find that logic overwhelming, which leaves taste and habit as the only real barriers to a plant-based diet. And good recipes (and chefs like Dan Barber) can easily obliterate those barriers.