Last night I dreamt I was at a barbecue. The atmosphere was festive. People were eating burgers. I went to the prep area to see how the burgers were made. With a set of tongs, the cook would pick up a live rat—a very large rat the size of a big domestic cat. He would immobilize the rat, pressing her down firmly against the table with the tongs, then electrocute her with a curling iron pressed against her neck. The rat’s body would then go through a meat grinder, the shredded meat seasoned and pressed into burgers, and the burgers barbecued. People were happily eating the burgers as they came off the grill, enjoying the company, laughing and playing games in the summer sunshine. I told people about how the burgers were made, about what was being done to the rats to make the burgers. Nobody appeared to care, or to find the information of any interest. It was like I was speaking but no sound was coming out. There was sound coming out, but no one seemed to hear my words or pay any heed. The message was bouncing off a wall of momentum, a steady rush of fun that nothing was going to stop.
When I woke up, I opened the Bible and turned to the book of Isaiah. In chapter six, I read God’s instructions to the prophet:
Go, and say to this people: “Keep on hearing, but do not understand; keep on seeing, but do not perceive.” Make the heart of this people dull, and their ears heavy, and blind their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed (Isaiah 6.9-10).
I realized that Isaiah was contending, some 2,700 years ago, with the same dullness of conscience that today enables us to enjoy, without regret or contrition, foods derived from processes that inflict relentless suffering on our fellow creatures of flesh. The field of psychology has granted a name to the dulling of conscience and hardness of heart described in the book of Isaiah: “psychic numbing”.
Psychic numbing is an interruption in psychoemotional processing which leads to diminished or blunted feeling. It is facilitated by and manifested in various ego defense mechanisms. Psychic numbing is thought to allow one to participate in violent practices without experiencing apparent cognitive-affective disturbance (Lifton, 1986). The ideology of meat production and consumption has been referred to as carnism (Joy, 2001). The collective and individual defenses observed in carnistic culture suggest that psychic numbing may play a role in meat consumption. This carnistic numbing may be expressed through the defense mechanisms of denial, avoidance, rationalization, justification, and dissociation. (…) Carnistic numbing might help to explain why an individual can consume meat without experiencing any overt distress. (PhD dissertation abstract, Melanie Joy, Psychic numbing and meat consumption: The psychology of carnism, 2002).
When we persist in indulging our appetites regardless of the cost to others, not only do we harm those others, we harm ourselves. Psalm 78 provides a compelling object lesson on the price of insisting on eating what we want, in defiance of what is right:
They tested God in their heart by demanding the food they craved. (…) He caused the east wind to blow in the heavens, and by his power he led out the south wind; he rained meat on them like dust, winged birds like the sand of the seas; he let them fall in the midst of their camp, all around their dwellings. And they ate and were well filled, for he gave them what they craved. But before they had satisfied their craving, while the food was still in their mouths,the anger of God rose against them, and he killed the strongest of them and laid low the young men of Israel (Psalm 78. 18, 26-31).
The passage describes the inbuilt mechanisms of cosmic judgment that afflict a community bent on indulging its appetites in violation of universal laws set in place by the Creator. The very language — “he rained meat on them like dust” — evokes Moses’s account of the third plague unleashed on the Egyptians in which dust became a mass of gnats that tormented the people and the animals.
Now that we’re experiencing our own transgression-induced plague, will we ‘see with our eyes, hear with our ears, understand with our hearts, and turn and be healed’, or will we persist, like the ancient Egyptians under Pharaoh, on the path to collective self-destruction?
From coronavirus and E. coli, to crime, cruelty, and ecocide, the meat industry incubates a cornucopia of ills. Why, then, does government underwrite it with billions in subsidies?
[Note: This story contains graphic details from accounts by slaughterhouse workers.]
“Workers stand shoulder to shoulder, wielding knives. It’s loud, it’s slippery, it’s wet and there’s blood everywhere…”
No, that’s not an eyewitness account of a visit to a Chinese wet market. It’s a union leader’s recent description of the daily routine inside a typical North American slaughterhouse. It’s no surprise, then, that what are essentially industrialized wet markets have provided the perfect launching pad for the hyper spread of COVID-19. The difference is that this time it’s intensively confined people, rather than pangolins or bats or other caged creatures, who are propagating the pathogen.
The largest single-site outbreaks of COVID-19 in Canada and the U.S. have occurred in meatpacking plants, where social distancing is impossible. Investigations have linked the rapid spread of the virus in the plants and their surrounding communities to processing companies’ failure to protect their workforce. Industry employers, including JBS, Smithfield Foods, Tyson Foods, and Cargill, did not provide the necessary protective gear to their workers. According to numerous employee accounts, managers also pressured workers to report for shifts when they were showing symptoms of coronavirus infection. In one case, an asymptomatic Cargill worker who tested positive and went into mandatory 14-day quarantine was asked to come back to work after three days. Workers at the same Cargill plant reported that the company began offering bonuses to entice those self-isolating back to work during the outbreak. At a Smithfield distribution facility, a supervisor reportedly told workers the coronavirus couldn’t survive in the plant’s cold temperatures. At a JBS plant, a worker who became ill was refused permission to go home. He remained at work, doing his job handing out smocks and gloves to hundreds of employees. Soon thereafter the worker tested positive for COVID-19. He ended up in the ICU on a ventilator. Thankfully, he survived.
The failure of meatpacking companies to protect their employees, who are mostly immigrants, temporary foreign workers, and undocumented laborers, has turned the communities in which the plants are located into infection hotspots. Coronavirus infection rates in the counties housing the largest U.S. cow, chicken, and pig processing plants, for example, are 75% higher than in other U.S. counties. The number of employee deaths is rising, and infections stemming from the plant outbreaks, which have spilled over into towns and cities across the continent, are in the thousands. In Canada, labor federation officials have requested a criminal investigation.
While all eyes are focused on the compounding contagion, what’s been eclipsed by the current crisis in meatpacking plants is that COVID-19 is but one sickness in an industry that sickens and injures workers, their communities, animals, consumers, and the environment on an unparalleled scale. The unpalatable truth about what goes on in the industry that produces so much of the world’s food is so disturbing that it is intentionally and necessarily concealed. Consumers prefer not to know.
But consumers need to know.
The coronavirus pandemic—the product of a toxic human-animal interface—and the exploding rates of infection among meat plant workers and the communities in which they live, demand that we look at, acknowledge, and—hopefully—remedy the ills of a catastrophic system we can no longer afford to ignore.
How the industry harms workers
The current pandemic notwithstanding, it’s not just the coronavirus that’s making workers sick at North American meat-processing companies. Slaughterhouse and meatpacking workers have long experienced the highest rates of workplace injury of all manufacturing industries. They are three times more likely than the average worker to suffer serious injuries, including amputations, burns, and head trauma. At US meat plants, amputations stemming from workplace accidents occur an average of twice a week. Because of their constant exposure to chemicals and pathogens, workers are more prone to a host of diseases including lung cancer and hepatitis. Countless injuries and illnesses in the slaughter and meat processing industry go unreported because workers, many of whom have no other employment options, fear losing their jobs. For temporary foreign and undocumented workers, job loss can mean deportation.
In addition to higher rates of illness and physical injury, industrial farm and slaughterhouse workers sustain high rates of trauma in conjunction with the brutality of the work, which manifests variously as depression, hostility, panic, paranoia, and even psychosis. Ed Van Winkle, a former employee at a hog slaughterhouse, confessed: “the worst thing, worse than the physical danger, is the emotional toll… Pigs down on the kill floor have come up and nuzzled me like a puppy. Two minutes later I had to kill them—beat them to death with a pipe. I can’t care.”
Researchers have found that the intensification of animal agriculture has resulted in increased emotional distancing between farm workers and slaughterers, and the cows, pigs, chickens, and other animals they raise and kill. The sheer number of animals to be processed and the pressure under which workers are compelled to operate preclude all possibility of meaningful connection between the workers and the animals they handle. That affective disconnect has borne toxic fruit: a greater propensity for violence against those animals by the workers themselves. Studies and undercover investigations, in addition to accounts by employees, have revealed that animal agriculture workers frequently commit acts of deliberate animal cruelty on the job. Virgil Butler, a Tyson slaughterhouse employee-turned-whistleblower, explained how his colleagues regularly found amusement in tying the legs of live chickens in square knots: “they would dislocate the chicken’s legs at the hips and knees. Then loop one leg over the other across their stomach, and pull it tight. Then they would break both legs and loop them back through each other a 2nd time to form a square knot. …I have picked up these birds before and untied their legs. The bones inside their legs felt like a sack of broken glass. They would usually be bleeding in several places where the bones would break through the skin.”
Like coronavirus sickness, the violence intrinsic to the work of killing and dismembering for a living infects the communities in which the plants are located. In Upton Sinclair’s 1906 novel, The Jungle, murder, rape, and other violent crimes become commonplace among abattoir workers, who get desensitized to violence by the daily brutality of their jobs. The “Sinclair effect,” referring to the spillover of violent behavior from the workplace into the community, has proven true to life. Slaughterhouse employment measurably increases rates of domestic abuse and violent crime in communities: the larger the slaughterhouse, the higher the number of crimes.
Coupled with higher rates of violence are elevated substance abuse rates. Explaining why he thought so many of his colleagues had problems with alcohol, one former “hog sticker” said: “They have to drink, they have no other way of dealing with killing live, kicking animals all day long. If you stop and think about it, you’re killing several thousand beings a day.”
It’s bad for the workers, but far worse for the animals
As detrimental as slaughterhouse work can be for human workers and the communities in which they live, the fate for farmed animals is far worse. The pace of “disassembly” lines is so fast that it’s not uncommon for animals to pass the stunning point and still be fully conscious when they get to the next processing station. Pigs, for example, are meant to be dead by the time their bodies are dropped in the vats of boiling water that soften their hides. Those who aren’t “get up to the scalding tank, hit the water and start screaming and kicking. Sometimes they thrash so much they kick water out of the tank… Sooner or later they drown… I’m not sure if they burn to death before they drown, but it takes them a couple of minutes to stop thrashing,” explained former Morrell slaughterhouse worker Tommy Vladak.
A Washington Postexposé based on workers’ testimonies and backed up by video footage revealed similarly botched slaughtering in cow slaughter plants. One worker at the IBP plant in question, Ramon Moreno, had the job of cutting the hocks off hanging cow carcasses as they filed past on the disassembly line. The cows were supposed to be dead. All too frequently, they weren’t. The live and conscious cows—on some days dozens of them—still had their hocks cut off, and other parts, some cows surviving as far as the abdomen cutting and hide removal stations. “They blink. They make noises. The head moves, the eyes are wide and looking around,” said Moreno. “They die piece by piece.”
Martin Fuentes, a long-time worker at the same plant whose arm was badly broken by the frantic kicks of one such cow, said “I’ve seen thousands and thousands of cows go through the slaughter process alive. The cows can get seven minutes down the line and still be alive. I’ve been in the side-puller where they’re still alive. All the hide is stripped out down the neck there.” Veterinarian and former hamburger plant inspector Lester Friedlander attested to the frequency of the botched slaughters. “In plants all over the United States, this happens on a daily basis,” he said.
Frequent botched slaughters are not limited to IBP. Virgil Butler, the former Tyson slaughterhouse worker, described his work as follows: “With a sharp six-inch knife you slit the throats of the chickens the machines miss. You catch as many birds as you can because the ones you miss go straight into the scalder alive… It was also not uncommon for me to have to kill up to 30 birds in a row. And I know that I didn’t get them all—I couldn’t… And it really bothered me when I missed one and heard the poor bird go through the scalder alive, thrashing and bumping against the sides of it as it slowly died.” Such was the fate of an average 825,000 chickens and 18,000 turkeys per year at meat plants throughout North America in 2013.
Numerous exposés, whistleblower reports, and undercover investigations documenting botched slaughters, deliberate acts of cruelty, and animals skinned, boiled, and butchered alive notwithstanding, in 2018 the USDA approved increasing line speeds in chicken slaughter plants from 140 to 175 birds per minute—almost three birds per second—with predictable results. An investigation that same year found birds getting punched, thrown, scalded alive, and slowly drowned in malfunctioning electrified stunning baths. In 2019, the USDA removed line speed limits in pig slaughtering plants so U.S. meat producers could profit from the gap in supply created by a deadly epidemic ravaging China’s industrial pig farms.
It’s not only the last chapter of farmed animals’ lives at the slaughterhouse that is marked by evident brutality. Industry standards for the farming, transport, and slaughter of farmed animals in the intensive animal operations from which almost all meat and dairy derives necessarily consign those animals to lives of deprivation and affliction. To raise the 83 billion land animals killed each year for food under conditions that would afford them the capacity to engage in their natural behaviors, such as maternal relationships, foraging, social bonds, juvenile play, and freedom of movement, is impossible. There is simply not enough planet on which to do it. Industry’s solution is mass confinement, genetic modification, and intensification and streamlining of production, all of which necessarily reduces farmed cows, sheep, pigs, chickens and other animals to resources, rather than individuals.
The objectification of billions of sentient beings that, unlike plastic products pumped out on assembly lines, experience pain and fear, and have physical and emotional needs, has resulted in an unparalleled degree of suffering. Agribusiness companies are so sensitive to the exposure of that suffering that they have succeeded, in some jurisdictions, in criminalizing the photographing and videotaping of standard industry practices. Those practices include the removal of newborn calves destined for veal from their frantic mothers, whose milk is reserved for human consumption. “Downed” dairy cows who can no longer walk are removed with bulldozers and forklifts. Every year, an estimated 7 billion newborn male chicks, deemed of no use in egg production, are killed, most commonly gassed or shredded alive in maceration machines. Millions of female pigs are confined in crates just large enough for their bodies that prevent them from walking or turning around. Calves are routinely disbudded, castrated, and branded without anaesthetic. Chickens, debeaked without anaesthetic, are kept their entire lives in high-density, ammonia-filled warehouses. Genetically modified to grow quickly, they struggle to bear their own weight and are plagued by physical ailments.
Millions of animals die every year en route to slaughterhouses in Canada and the U.S., killed by long journeys in extreme temperatures, during which they are denied access to food, water, or rest. Of those who make it to slaughter, the final trip down the high-speed kill lines in meat processing plants means thousands of animals each day are denied a quick or painless death. With the current slaughter backlog caused by the COVID-19-induced disruptions at meat plants, industrial farms are culling millions of animals, now classified as waste, on site. The culling methods specified by the American Veterinary Medical Association’s guidelines for “depopulation” include gassing, suffocation with foam, and induced hyperthermia achieved by turning up the heat and switching off ventilation systems.
Slaughterhouse work negatively impacts workers and the communities in which they live, and the intensive animal agriculture industry consigns farmed animals to lives of relentless affliction. The intensive confinement and stress to which these animals are subject has such adverse effects on their development that industrial-scale farm operators are obligated to keep the animals on constant doses of antibiotics. Between 2000 and 2018, the growing demand for meat led to a tripling of the incidence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria in animals raised for food.
Human health and the environment suffer, too
What are literally sickening conditions for intensively farmed animals have serious implications for human health. In the U.S., approximately 70 percent of antibiotics are now fed to animals grown for food for the purpose of growth promotion. The resulting rise in antibiotic resistance means that infections in humans once easily treatable can now prove fatal. A 2013 study found that people living near pig farms or farm fields fertilized with pig manure were 30 percent more likely to become infected with antibiotic resistant Staphylococcus. Currently, an estimated 33,000 people in the E.U. die every year from infections caused by antibiotic-resistant bacteria. In the U.S., more than 2.8 million people contract antibiotic-resistant infections every year, resulting in over 35,000 deaths. Cognizant of the dangers in the 1970s, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration attempted to restrict the use of subtherapeutic antibiotics in animal feed. Under pressure from meat and pharmaceutical lobbies, the U.S. Congress overrode the FDA.
Antibiotic resistance is not the only threat to human health posed by intensive animal agriculture. The consumption of animal products themselves is linked with elevated rates of heart disease, diabetes, and certain cancers. Americans, who eat more meat per capita than anyone else, have double the obesity and diabetes rates of the rest of the world, and among the highest cancer rates. Millions of people are sickened each year by foodborne pathogens such as Listeria, E. coli, and Salmonella in contaminated meat. But potentially worse is that industrial animal farms, in which billions of cows, pigs, chickens, ducks, sheep, and other animals are intensively confined in unhygienic, stress-inducing conditions, have proven ideal incubators for the transmission of disease and the mutation of viruses, some—like bird flu and swine flu—that have already caused pandemics in the past and will undoubtedly do so again.
As if the pandemic risk alone weren’t cause enough for a complete overhaul of agribusiness, the sector has proven extremely destructive to the planet. The largest study of the environmental damage caused by farming shows that even the lowest impact meat and dairy products cause considerably more harm to the environment than the least sustainable vegetables and grains. Companies in the supply chain of JBS, the world’s largest meat producer, for example, are linked to the destruction of approximately 300 square kilometres of Amazon rainforest annually to graze cows for beef export. Every minute, animals raised for food in the U.S. produce an estimated seven million tons of excrement. Intensive farming for meat and dairy poisons rivers and groundwater, acidifies oceans, razes forests, accelerates the extinction of species, and produces more environment-destroying gases than all the world’s SUV’s, freighters, planes, and other modes of transport combined.
Industrial animal agribusiness exploits and afflicts its workers and their communities, subjects billions of farmed animals to lives of unyielding torment, harms the health of consumers and the planet, and creates the conditions for pandemics more lethal than COVID-19, all while enjoying billions in taxpayer-funded subsidies. For the meat and dairy industry in the U.S., those subsidies amount to $38 billion per year, most of which go not to small and mid-size farmers and ranchers, but to big corporations. The subsidies, along with all the hidden costs externalized to other sectors like healthcare, mean that producers have been able to keep meat and dairy prices artificially low. If all the costs of producing, say, ground beef, were included in the retail price, a five-dollar hamburger would actually sell for $13. Hence the surreal economic calculus that allows a meat producer to stay in business and make a profit even when the market value of his cows is half that of what it costs to raise them.
Why, then, if it’s so clearly harmful in so many ways, does the industrialized farming of animals persist? If governments can shutter entire economies to prevent the spread of one disease, why wouldn’t they prohibit, or at least severely restrict, one industry to prevent many diseases, deaths, and social and environmental ills? That that industry is given carte blanche to continue wreaking individual, social, and planet-wide havoc attests to a self-serving nexus of vested interests. The motive of key players in agribusiness, mega-corporations like Tyson, Cargill, JBS, and Smithfield Foods, is obvious: profit—profit, over every other consideration, including the lives and welfare of their workers, the communities in which they operate, the farmed animals they disassemble and process, and the environment they despoil.
In the United States, the department that should be regulating industrial animal agriculture, the USDA, time and again has proven to function as its proponent by, for example, pushing for industrial practices like line speed increases that augment industry profits while increasing harm to farmed animals. Even more curious is that this government body that is supposed to oversee the industry manages some $550 million worth of programs that promote the consumption of meat and dairy. Each marketing dollar spent on ad campaigns generated by those programs, such as “Beef. It’s what’s for dinner.” and “Milk. It does a body good.,” generate an additional eight dollars in sales of meat, dairy, and eggs. The USDA spends taxpayer dollars to stimulate demand. Workers and consumers pay with their health, workers and animals pay with their lives, and the viability of the ecosystem is increasingly jeopardized. That a number of USDA board members have had financial interests in the food industry makes for glaring conflicts of interest, as does the practice of high level USDA regulators moving into lucrative jobs at major agribusiness corporations. In 2017, mega-meat multinational JBS hired former senior USDA official Al Almanza who, while at the USDA, obliged meat producers by advocating for the deregulation of poultry, pork, and beef inspections. JBS has spent almost $8 million on lobbying in the U.S. since 2007. In return, it has received more than $900 million in government contracts. From repeated failures to enforce the minimal standards of the Humane Slaughter Act, to outright vested financial interests in the meat industry, the USDA has betrayed the public trust as a reliable overseer of animal agriculture.
If the engine of government bureaucracy has failed to rein in the evils of agribusiness, so have politicians. Take President Trump’s recent invocation of the Defense Production Act. The stated pretext of keeping meat plants open is to protect food security and avoid meat shortages. But does it really have to do with food? Animal affairs writer Merritt Clifton says no. “(The) risk of a U.S. food shortage during the COVID-19 pandemic had nothing to do with (it),” he writes. What it’s about, according to Clifton, is “fear of loss of jobs and votes for Republican incumbents in previously politically secure ‘red states’.” He also cites science and business writer Roger Witherspoon’s view that the goal of the executive order is to enable “meat companies to keep their plants open and require the workers to show up without incurring liability if (they) get sick and die.” The order has granted a license to states to force employees who fear catching COVID-19 back to work or risk losing unemployment benefits. Meat, it seems, is essential. “The workers,” says Witherspoon, “are disposable.”
Agribusiness corporations have succeeded in leveraging political and financial interests to hijack all significant attempts at curtailing their freedom to do business however they want, regardless of the costs. Bureaucrats and politicians have assisted, rather than hindered them, profiting along the way. And though it’s easy to assign blame to others when there are such formidable bullies in the room, consumers cannot claim innocence. If there were not continued demand for meat and dairy, there would be no industrial animal agribusiness. Meat producers, retailers, and restaurants know this, which is why, as the tide begins to shift, they’ve started including plant-based meat substitutes among the products they offer.
The COVID-19 pandemic has disabused us of the luxury of denial. Never has it been more apparent that the path to perdition is lined with cheeseburgers and chicken wings, pangolins and parmesan, steaks and lattes, and ribs and bacon. The average citizen may be powerless to tackle agribusiness head on, but each of us has a potent weapon at our disposal: our food choices. As long as we continue buying and consuming the products of industrial animal agriculture, we, alongside agribusiness bosses and compromised officials, share in the culpability for the sickened and exploited workers, the degraded communities, the tortured animals, the poisoned planet, and a diminished humanity. Although we’ve conveniently delegated to marginalized individuals with few vocational options the diabolical task of killing farmed animals and turning them into meat, the scourge with which the animal agriculture industry has for so long afflicted its exploited workforce and its farmed animal victims has finally come to plague us all in the form of COVID-19. The French writer Georges Bataille wrote: “the slaughterhouse is cursed and quarantined like a boat carrying cholera.” We are finally all in the same infected boat. The question is whether we are determined to sink that boat, or make new choices to reach the shore.
This story was originally published on Medium on May 7, 2020.
The Chinese government announced it would permanently ban the wildlife trade suspected to be at the center of the COVID-19 pandemic. Will factory farms be next?
German chancellor Otto von Bismarck is alleged to have challenged one of his critics to a duel in 1865. According to the apocryphal tale, it was left to the critic, a pathologist with an understanding of the disease links between humans and farmed animals, to select the arms. His weapon of choice? Meat—two pork sausages, identical except that one was infested with the potentially lethal parasite Trichinella. Bismarck could choose which sausage to eat, and his opponent would eat the other. The pathologist won by default. Bismarck recognized the power of the weapon wielded against him, and declined the contest.
More recently, another political power experienced defeat by meat. In February, the Chinese government, finally aware that the wildlife trade’s exorbitant costs have far exceeded its profits, has likewise opted to back away from potentially lethal meat by issuing a permanent ban on the consumption and trade of wild animals. Unfortunately, the ban has come too late. The novel coronavirus, with its suspected source in bats, via pangolins, is believed to have emerged at one of China’s wild animal markets. COVID-19, the acute respiratory disease caused by the virus, has spread around the globe, killing thousands, infecting hundreds of thousands, and costing the global economy trillions.
China’s wild animal markets have long been identified as optimal sites for the emergence of zoonotic viruses with pandemic potential. Stressed animals, immunologically compromised and crowded together in unhygienic conditions, create ideal conditions for the propagation of disease. Activities related to the captivity, handling, transport, slaughter, and consumption of those animals enable diseases to jump to humans. That is precisely what transpired with the 2003 SARS epidemic that infected over 8,000 people, killed 774, and cost the global economy an estimated $40 billion. Civet cats at a wildlife market in Guangdong were identified as the likely vector for transmission of the SARS virus to humans. COVID-19 has already far exceeded the toll of the 2003 SARS outbreak, in both lives and dollars.
SARS and COVID-19 are but two of a series of infectious diseases that have emerged in the human pursuit of meat. Ebola, which has claimed over 13,000 human lives since 2014, has been traced to fruit bats and primates butchered for food. In 1998, the Nipah virus jumped to humans from fruit bats via intensively farmed pigs in Malaysia and killed over half of the humans infected. Measles, responsible for the deaths of millions since its emergence in antiquity, is believed to have originated from a virus in sheep and goats that spilled over to the human population through the process of domestication. HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, was first identified in chimpanzees in West Africa in 1989, and jumped to humans likely through the hunting, butchering, and/or consumption of HIV-infected primates. AIDS, to date, has killed over 32 million people.
The pattern is sobering: the human quest for meat functions as a key driver of the emergence of deadly infectious diseases that kill countless human and nonhuman animals.
Considering the toll, and the ongoing threat to lives and livelihoods posed by COVID-19, it’s worth asking whether the conditions that led to its emergence exist elsewhere. The answer is a resounding yes: conditions conducive to the emergence and spread of virulent pathogens exist in industrialized animal farming operations. Ninety-nine percent of farmed animals in the U.S. come from factory farms. Globally, the figure is 90 percent. The vast majority of meat, dairy, and eggs consumed today come from operations in which billions of cows, pigs, chickens, ducks, goats, sheep, and other immunologically-compromised animals are confined in cramped, unhygienic conditions, and often transported long distances. These operations have been identified as hot spots for the cross-infection of diseases and the mutation of viruses, some with pandemic potential.
Avian influenza, or “bird flu,” is another case in point. Humans have more in common with chickens than most realize, namely a susceptibility to infection with similar viruses. Human pandemics can arise when a strain of the avian influenza virus is transmitted from its source in wild aquatic birds to farmed chickens. A strain of avian influenza caused the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic that killed 50 to 100 million humans. Tens of thousands of wounded WWI soldiers had gathered in crowded, unhygienic army camps on the Western Front, in close proximity to pig farms and duck, geese, and chicken markets; the circumstances resulted in cross-species transmission of the virus. The demobilization of troops at the end of the war served as the means of dispersing the virus around the globe. Those same pandemic-producing conditions currently exist in industrialized animal farming operations, the main difference being that in 1918, the soldiers functioned as the warehoused chickens through which the virus simmered and then propagated.
Avian influenza viruses are especially dangerous because some strains infect not only birds but also other mammals. When two or more strains of the virus infect the same cell in, say, a pig, a chicken, or a human, the animal or human host acts as a “mixing vessel”—like a cocktail shaker—in which the different strains undergo a process of “reassortment.” The various strains combine to create “novel”—new—strains of infectious disease with pandemic potential. When an avian influenza virus infected farmed pigs, it evolved to produce the H1N1 strain of swine flu, itself a combination of four different viruses from three different species—pigs, birds, and humans. The resulting 1957 Asian Flu pandemic and the 1968 Hong Kong Flu pandemic each caused between one and four million human deaths; the 2009 H1N1 Swine Flu epidemic killed almost 300,000 people. These figures do not include the numbers of animal deaths, which far exceed the human toll. The African Swine Fever virus currently ravaging pig farming operations in China, for example, has led to the death of millions of pigs, many culled by brutal means. The same virus has led to the culling of almost six million pigs in Vietnam in the past year alone. The mandatory killing of farmed animals wherever contagions emerge—whether the animals are infected or not—is not limited to Asia. More than 6.5 million cows, pigs, and sheep were culled in Britain in 2001 during the foot-and-mouth disease epidemic. The repeated, worldwide, infection-induced, mass culling of farmed animals should itself serve as a grave warning sign of a dangerously unhealthy industry, whether one is concerned solely for the wellbeing of one’s own species or for that of others. The viruses that periodically trigger such mass killings continue to combine and mutate, creating novel, potentially lethal diseases to which no one is immune.
Numerous studies demonstrate how intensive animal farming increases the risk of pandemics. Research shows that confined animal feeding operations amplify novel influenza strains and that large-scale commercial animal farms increase the risk of outbreaks and transmission of zoonotic disease, function to maintain and disperse highly virulent strains of influenza and increase the frequency and scale of highly pathogenic outbreaks. It also shows that factory farm-induced deforestation and rampant antibiotic use heighten risk of the emergence of novel diseases. Intensive animal farming unquestionably poses a grave, pandemic-level threat to human and animal health. A 2017 study found that the speed with which new strains of influenza are emerging has increased since 2000, raising the likelihood of pandemics. In the present, grim context of yet another global pandemic precipitated by the human demand for meat, we’ve largely chosen to remain willfully ignorant of the dangers posed by the source of the vast majority of that meat: factory farms.
Evolutionary ecologist Rob Wallace, author of Big Farms Make Big Flu, argues that a factory farm-spawned pandemic is not just possible; it’s probable. “Agribusiness,” he writes, “backed by state power at home and abroad, is now working as much with influenza as against it.” Dr. Michael Greger, author of How Not to Die and Bird Flu: A Virus of Our Own Hatching, calls factory farming a “perfect storm environment” for “super-strains” of infectious diseases. “If you actually want to create global pandemics,” he says, “then build factory farms.” Some may consider such perspectives to be extreme, but they are echoed by mainstream voices. In 2008, the Pew Commission, in its report on industrial farm animal production in America, warned of the “unacceptable” public health risks posed by industrialized animal agriculture. Public health professionals have long been aware of the dangers. In 2003, an editorial in the American Journal of Public Health advocated for an end to factory farming, explicitly acknowledging that killing animals for food—especially via intensive animal agriculture—increases the likelihood of epidemics. The author of that prescient article, Dr. David Benatar, wrote: “Those who consume animals not only harm those animals and endanger themselves, but they also threaten the well-being of other humans who currently or will later inhabit the planet…It is time for humans to remove their heads from the sand and recognize the risk to themselves that can arise from their maltreatment of other species.”
In China, before the COVID-19 outbreak led authorities to announce the closure of the wildlife trade, the industry was valued at over $74 billion. Critics, aware of the trade’s potential to unleash virulent infectious diseases, have for years complained that government policy has been hijacked by commercial interests. It took an epidemic and near-shutdown of the Chinese economy to precipitate a ban on the consumption and trade of wildlife. The conditions that triggered the emergence of COVID-19 exist in plain sight on factory farms. Shouldn’t governments take action before the emergence of another, possibly deadlier, epidemic, rather than after? The economic interests of intensive animal farming operations—not to mention our own appetites for flesh—continue to eclipse the imperatives of public health. If policymakers are serious about preventing pandemics rather than reacting to the carnage after the fact, then it’s time to do with factory farms what China did with the wildlife trade—shut them down altogether.
This article was originally published on Sentient Media on March 19, 2020.
Monkey is born free, but he is everywhere in chains.
Ramu the monkey hovered beside Sarada, picking through the shelter manager’s long black locks, looking for edible tidbits in her scalp and eyebrows. Every so often he would find something, pick it with his delicate fingers, and pop it into his mouth. I spent several weeks in Visakhapatnam, India, in 2008, where I met Ramu and Sarada, and filmed their interaction:
Ramu was a macaque. As a baby he’d been attacked by dogs and practically torn in two. Almost dead, he was picked up by the ambulance of the Visakha Society for the Protection and Care of Animals, stitched back together, and carefully nursed to health over a period of months. Though now healthy, his body displayed the scars of the attack – thick strips of knotted, gnarled skin running all the way down his back from his shoulder to his waist, on his arms, and elsewhere.
Some viewers enjoyed the soothing scene of Ramu grooming Sarada. They could see that there existed a relationship of trust and affection between the monkey and the woman. They appreciated the reasons for Ramu’s captivity, and extended grace to the animal shelter that, despite its limited resources, had saved Ramu’s life and provided him with a safe, if not perfect, place to live. Would a multi-million dollar primate sanctuary in the forest have been better? Sure, but there weren’t any in the neighborhood. Ramu got the best on offer.
The context of Ramu’s captivity seemed lost on other viewers of the video, a video that, inexplicably, has generated over a million views since I made it in 2008. What those viewers always noticed was the chain around Ramu’s neck. Not only did they notice it, they frequently unleashed a barrage of criticism on (I’m not sure who) for this act of supposed cruelty.
Despite repeated attempts at responding nicely to people with explanations (he’s not ready for release yet, if he gets away while out of his cage he could be attacked by dogs again, yes, a cloth collar would be nicer but he’s able to remove them), even years after uploading it, and adding to the information below the video to explain Ramu’s situation, I gave up. I even tried switching off the comments for a while. It didn’t matter. People were going to watch the video, say their piece, and move on to their next quarry. Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. I resigned myself to scrolling through the comments occasionally and deleting the vulgar and abusive ones.
The philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau penned the (modified) proverb with which I began this post. The real version, man is born free, but he is everywhere in chains, refers to Rousseau’s view that, like Ramu, we are born free, but repressive authorities, dominating individuals, and our own inauthentic needs work to enslave us. The goal of good government, he said, should be the freedom of its citizens.
To that end, I recently contacted Pradeep Nath, the VSPCA founder and president, for an update on Ramu. I was amazed to learn that sweet Ramu, a wounded creature I thought would spend the rest of his life in captivity, has been released under the supervision of the Forestry Department, along with four other macaques rescued and rehabilitated by the VSPCA. Good government indeed. And a lovely redemptive analogy: a redeemer rescues the monkey from certain death, and restores him back to life. Thus saved, the monkey lives within the constraints of a fallen, imperfect world, always carrying within himself an innate, God-given blueprint for freedom and full restoration.
It turns out Ramu did not hope in vain. Pradeep not only saved Ramu, he also effected his restoration to freedom, to life as intended, in a prototype paradise, itself a foretaste of the cosmic renewal to come.
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth passed away. (…) And I heard a loud voice from the throne, saying, “Behold, the tabernacle of God is among men, and He will dwell among them, and they shall be His people, and God Himself will be among them, and He will wipe away every tear from their eyes; andthere will no longer be any death; there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain; the first things have passed away.” And He who sits on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” Revelation 21.1,3-5
As bushfires raged in Australia, viewers around the globe watched with trepidation the news story of a shirtless woman in sandals running toward a badly burnt koala clinging to a tree. The koala had just scrambled through the burning brush trying to escape the inferno. The woman, who’d taken off her shirt to wrap around the wounded creature, carried him to safety, doused him with bottled water, wrapped his bloodied body in a blanket, and drove him to a vet hospital. A collective cheer rose in all of us upon witnessing the heroic triumph.
Two years ago, a similar wave of celebration circled the globe during the devastating fires in southern California. Harrowing footage showed a young man at the edge of a highway saving a rabbit from certain death in a massive wall of fire.
The rescue of the rabbit and the koala affect us so deeply because they portray something we all long for – a happy ending. That we find these tales of rescue so gripping implies that we identify, at least on some level, with the creatures caught in the grip of impending catastrophe. We experience vicariously their fear, feeling it in our very bodies as our adrenaline spikes and our hearts pound. When the longed-for rescue at last takes place, we burst with relief, and then joy.
J.R.R. Tolkien, author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, had a term for that moment of triumph. He called it “eucatastrophe” – the point in a story at which certain disaster is overcome and its would-be victims delivered. That momentous instant, when good triumphs over evil, imparts to the reader profound joy: a catch of the breath, a beat and lifting of the heart, near to (or indeed accompanied by) tears. Happy endings were important for Tolkien, and he endeavoured to provide them to his readers.
The Bible, too, is dotted with dramatic, triumphant rescues – happy endings involving humans, animals, and a prototype redeemer who saves them from overpowering elements, then brings them to a place of safety and new beginnings. Noah saves his family and an ark-load of animals from the global deluge that wipes out the wicked of the earth. They emerge atop Mt. Ararat, from whence human and animal life begins anew.
Moses saves the Israelites from the murderous Pharaoh, guides them through the Red Sea to solid ground on the other side, and leads them on the quest for the Promised Land. And the animals? Yes, they’re there too. One of my favourite lines in the plague sequence comes after the ninth plague, when Pharaoh agrees the Israelites can leave, but tries to guarantee their return by forcing them to leave their animals behind. Not one hoof shall be left behind! answers Moses (Exodus 10.26).
Likewise, Joshua, Moses’ replacement, miraculously leads the Israelites – the men, their wives, their little ones, and the flocks of each tribe – through the Jordan and into the Promised Land.
These rescues are prototype redemptions, and they don’t end with the Bible. The woman saving the koala, the young man saving the rabbit, and the many other stories of heroic rescue that move us so deeply demonstrate that the archetypal redemption narrative repeats itself over and over again in real life. As Karen Armstrong said in the quote with which I opened part one of The Collapsing Cosmos, traditionally, a myth expressed a timeless truth that, in some sense, happened once, but which also happens all the time.
What is the timeless truth to which these recurring prototype redemptions point us?
According to the Scriptures, all of creation, including each of us, yearns for redemption. Why? Because we, like the imperiled koala and rabbit in the face of devouring flames, need it.
The 19th century Catholic cardinal, John Henry Newman, considered that humanity had been implicated in some terrible aboriginal calamity, a vast primordial catastrophe that knocked the creation out of joint with the purposes of its Creator. Barring a profound, cosmos-wide rescue, that “primordial catastrophe” set us on an inexorable path to destruction, just like the koala and the rabbit, had their respective redeemers not intervened.
If we are in the position of the rabbit in the news clip, headed straight for an apocalyptic demise – in our case, both spiritually and physically – then clearly, like characters in a Tolkien novel, we stand in need of rescue.
The good news is that there is rescue, and it, too, sounds like a story from a Tolkien novel. The rescuer is the Creator himself, who, out of devotion to his creation, assumed the form of one of us, and took the entirety of the “primordial catastrophe” of human failure upon himself, that we might be released from its terminal consequences. Tolkien thought of the story of Jesus Christ as a fantasy tale, with one crucial difference: he believed the gospel of Jesus Christ as rescuer-redeemer to be true. It was, he said, a story that has entered History and the primary world. (…) The Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of Man’s history, he explained.
The rescuer, arms outstretched, stands between the rabbit and the abyss, offering to save her. The rabbit surrendered to the rescuer’s mercy and found life in his arms. Will we?
“Traditionally, a myth expressed a timeless truth that, in some sense, happened once, but which also happens all the time.” Karen Armstrong, Recovering the Lost Art of Scripture: Rescuing the Sacred Texts. (Image: Google images)
Apocalyptic fires, erupting volcanoes, killer storms, devastating floods, voracious locust hordes, powerful earthquakes, mass animal extinctions, and a killer pandemic claiming more victims by the day… It’s as if we’re back in Egypt in the days of Pharaoh as the famous series of catastrophic plagues unfolds, ravages Egyptian society, and leads to its ruin. It seems a good time to ask whether the plague narrative has anything to say about why they occurred.
First, a brief look at those plagues. In the first one, found in chapter seven of the book of Exodus, the water of the Nile is turned to blood. All the marine life dies, and the stench of blood and rotting fish fill the air. You may remember that eight decades prior, at the time of the birth of Moses, then-Pharaoh ordered all the male Hebrew babies to be killed. They were cast into the Nile and drowned. Those sins are now catching up with Egypt. The water they depend on for life turns to blood, as with the blood of the murdered infants. This first plague heralds the start of a series of catastrophes that leads to the collapse of Egyptian society.
As the plagues unfold from blood to frogs to gnats to flies to the death of livestock, hail, locusts, and finally darkness, and the death of the firstborn, Pharaoh’s heart is repeatedly hardened – most of the time by Pharaoh himself, and three times by God. At each instance, Pharaoh persists in his refusal to set the Israelite slaves free. As a result, he brings disaster upon himself and his society. As this repeated hardening against what are essentially opportunities for mercy unfolds, Egyptian society and the creation itself – the land, the water, the air, and the animals – reap the bitter consequences of sin and evil. Could this be what is happening in our natural world today? Are the systems that sustain life collapsing under the weight of evil and unbridled human self-indulgence? Are the catastrophic weather and geological events, the apocalyptic natural disasters, the mass extinctions and epidemics symptoms of the creation staggering under the weight of humanity’s accumulated sin?
The Scriptures indicate that the creation indeed suffers as a result of human sin. How long will the land mourn and the grass of every field wither? For the evil of those who dwell in it the beasts and the birds are swept away laments the prophet Jeremiah (Jeremiah 12.4). Another Old Testament prophet, Hosea, says the same thing, that the disappearance of the beasts of the field, the birds of the heavens, and of the fish of the sea occurs a direct consequence of sin and evil (Hosea 4.3). Jeremiah continues: they have made my pleasant portion a desolate wilderness. They have made it a desolation; desolate, it mourns to me (Jeremiah 12.11). The Creator hears the cries of his creatures and his creation as it suffers under the burden of humanity’s sin. And in the book of Leviticus we’re told what happens when a society’s sins reach their culmination: the land “vomits out” its inhabitants(Leviticus 18.25).
Throughout biblical history there are examples of civilizations collapsing, getting “vomited out”, their empires rendered desolate – human society before the Flood, the Egyptians, the Babylonians, the Medes & Persians, the Romans, the Jews – as all these people groups, in their free will, choose to defy the laws set in place by the Creator for the flourishing of life, and instead set their own course. Is this to be our fate as well?
The plague sequence in the book of Exodus mirrors the creation sequence of the first book of Genesis. Both of them unfold in patterns of threes. This is not simply random trivia. It demonstrates that the way we choose to live has a profound impact on the course of the creation – which is precisely what happens in the case of the Egyptians and the plagues.
In the creation account in Genesis 1, God declares a realm into existence – for example, “Let there be light.” He splits it into two realms – day and night. Then he fills each realm – the day with the sun and the night with the moon and the luminaries of the heavens. He proceeds in the same manner – one, two, three, one, two, three, one, two, three – as if composing a grand cosmic symphony, as he creates the heavens, the earth, the land, the sea, and all that fills them. It’s a cycle of ever abounding and flourishing life.
In the account of the plagues we see this same structure based on threes, marked by whether the plague in question is initiated by Aaron’s staff or Moses’s staff (three times each), whether a warning is given at all (no warning with three of the plagues), or whether the warning is given at the Palace or at the Nile (three times each). In the case of the plagues, instead of a life-abounding spiral, however, it’s a spiral of self-destruction. Creation collapses in upon itself in a domino effect, in a process theologians call “de-creation”. Rather than a cycle of ever-abounding life, we find an ominous symphony that ends in darkness and death.
What is amazing is that we, mere creatures of dust, have a repeated and sustained impact on the grand cosmic processes that affect the entire creation. The choices we make determine whether the creation flourishes or collapses. Ultimately, the creation comes to collect on every debt we incur against it. We can recognize the error of our ways, repent, and change course. Or, like Pharaoh, we can double down in our intransigence, deny our transgressions, and force the entire creation to reap the consequences. The choice is ours.
What did God instruct humans to eat before their expulsion from the Garden of Eden, and how is that relevant to us today? Have a listen, or read below.
My Christian brothers and sisters, today I invite you to take a fresh look at a common subject: food. Did you know that in the book of Genesis God explicitly prescribes for us an entirely plant-based diet?
In Genesis 1: 29 it says, “And God said, ‘Behold, I have given you every plant-yielding seed that is on the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit. You shall have them for food.”
Even the animals in the Garden of Eden are to eat plants. All of God’s creatures to whom he has given the breath of life, whether human or animal, are to find their food from among the plants and trees. Genesis 1 continues: “And it was so. And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good.”
So what happened?
Well, we know what happened. The Fall. Death. Sin. Violence. Bloodshed.
In fact, humanity’s violence was so abhorrent to God that he decided to wipe us off the face of the earth, with the exception of Noah, his family and the animals God led to the ark. In Genesis 6: 13 it says “And God said to Noah, ‘ I have determined to make an end of all flesh for the earth is filled with violence through them.’”
Did you know that it was not until after the Flood, generations later, that as a concession to human depravity, God granted humans permission to eat the flesh of animals? We see this in Genesis 9, where it says “every moving thing that lives shall be food for you” (v. 3).
We know, however, that this was not God’s best will for us. We know it first of all, from the account in Genesis 1. We also know that God abhors violence – his own words say so. In his original design, eating did not involve killing.
If that’s not enough, we need only look ahead to the description of God’s kingdom provided by the prophet Isaiah. When Christ comes again to rule the earth, once again, just like in the Garden of Eden, there will be no killing.
The famous lion and the lamb passage in Isaiah 11 ends like this:
“Nothing shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain; for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.”
And just to make sure we don’t forget his message, Isaiah reiterates the exact same thing again in chapter 65:
“The wolf and the lamb shall graze together; the lion shall eat straw like the ox, and dust shall be the serpent’s food. They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain,’ says the Lord.”
God’s kingdom is one of peace, for ALL his creatures.
We pray as Christ taught us: Father, Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
Think about that.
I ask you, in all earnestness and humility, to consider whether these very words we speak with our mouths might not bear some implications for what we put in our mouths.