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Topics » Environment & Sustainability » 3 Ways Pandemics Make Us Examine Our Relationship With Food and the Environment
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3 Ways Pandemics Make Us Examine Our Relationship With Food and the Environment

The global pandemic has brought worldwide attention to aspects of day-to-day life most had previously never questioned. From our work commute to the foods we eat to who and what we consider “essential,” never has there been such a challenge to the status quo.

Examining Our Consumption of Animals

One particular area of attention is the human-animal relationship. There is wide scientific consensus that COVID-19 transferred from animals to humans. The leading theory is that the virus originated from a “wet market” in China. Wet markets are places where animals of all types—from seafood to exotic animals—are brought in live and then are slaughtered on-site for customers to take home and eat. Until they are slaughtered, the animals are kept in cramped, stressed conditions, enabling viruses to spread from one animal to another and then, as was the case with COVID-19, transfer to humans.

Humans have a long history of consuming animals. Although scientists believe our human ancestors once subsisted on a diet rich in fruits, leaves, and seeds, over 2 million years ago, the climate got hotter and drier, forcing our ancestors to find new sources of energy. As a result, they started consuming animals. Fast forward to today, and meat is a major part of the standard American diet. Meat is even tied to many traditions, cultures, and religions. But do we really need to eat animals in this day and age? The answer is no. With the proliferation of plant-based proteins, animal-product substitutes, and most importantly nutritional education, we know that a whole food, plant-based diet is attainable and can provide a healthier life.

Animal consumption at scale is also putting both animal and human populations at risk. Animal agriculture has been shown to precipitate pandemics. Take H1N1, for example, commonly known as swine flu, which was believed to have originated from a factory farm in North Carolina, infecting nearly 61 million people between 2009 and 2010. Or the avian influenza that spread across China in 2013; researchers have confirmed that this H7N9 bird flu virus was transmitted from chickens to humans at a wet poultry market. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that “…3 out of every 4 new or emerging infectious diseases in people come from animals.”

Investigations show clusters of COVID-19 cases linked to meatpacking plants.

There is science-based evidence that shows the negative health effects of consuming animal products, not to mention the environmental stressors of intensive animal agriculture. Across the board, from health to environment to ethics, there is a confluence of events enabling us to reconsider animal consumption.

Examining the Sustainability of Our Food Systems

Some may remember a time when animals grazed on family farms and people bought meat at the local butcher. Our modern food supply reality is a far cry from the bucolic image of the past. Today, nearly 99% of US farmed animals are living on factory farms. What’s more, six companies—Tyson, Hormel, National Beef, Cargill, JBS, and Smithfield—control two-thirds of US meat and poultry sales. The monopolistic meat industry has made it impossible for family-run farmers to compete. These too-big-to-fail giants also require thousands of workers to be packed into tight spaces on demanding meat-processing assembly lines with a near single point of failure.

In May 2020, a trend line emerged that showed the coronavirus’ rampant spread through these meatpacking plants. The CDC estimates that thousands of workers across 19 states fell ill and that 20 workers died. Investigations show clusters of COVID-19 cases linked to meatpacking plants. What’s more, live animals can’t simply be put on pause. When meatpacking plants shuttered or slowed operations, animals were killed and discarded. The trickle-down effect meant grocery store shelves were void of pork, beef, and other animal products. This illustrates a dangerous, unsustainable model.

Examining the Culture of Work, Transport, and Travel

We have also witnessed the pandemic bringing daily life to a halt. Many are no longer driving to work. There are reduced numbers of boats and ships in waterways. The pandemic has also greatly reduced air travel. The outcome of these reductions has had a startling impact on the environment. From Italy’s industrial north to China’s Hubei province and elsewhere, pollution plunged. Some in India, a country with notoriously bad air pollution, have reported being able to see the Himalayas from their homes for the first time ever. Studies suggest that some countries saw as much as a 30% reduction in air pollution. There has also been a reduction in waste on beaches as well as a decrease in noise pollution.

Companies are realizing that they can in fact operate with distributed teams, and many are now allowing workers to be fully remote.

Some are predicting that the behavior of travel will change, as many people are opting to travel by car rather than air or to stay closer to home.

What we have gotten a taste of over these last months is reductionism. We’ve had the opportunity to witness on a global scale that pandemics, climate disasters, and our food system are all related and are inflicting an insufferable footprint on Earth. We can appreciate the intense exploitation of resources now more than ever, compelling us not only to examine but to change our relationship with the natural world.

Copyright 2022 Center for Nutrition Studies. All rights reserved.

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