The Hot Topic: Will coronavirus do what climate change couldn’t and turn the world vegetarian?
A scene from the movie Contagion comes to mind: the last scene, which shows the origin of the virus, the pig that the chef touched before shaking hands with the customer. The pig was the intermediary host between the bat and the human - which could have been entirely avoided if the pig was not eaten in the first place.
The connection between a greener planet and less consumption of meat has been established over and over, and yet it feels like we are constantly repeating ourselves while we are on the subject. Farming and production of meat products require more resources, and is, therefore, worse for the environment, as it has a higher carbon footprint as opposed to the consumption of plant-based products. For the production of chicken, a coop is needed first to house the poultry, and they need to be fed and watered right from the time they hatch. For the production of beef, lamb, and pork, even more, resources are needed: the animals need to be farmed and fed for months before they are slaughtered. Cows additionally release massive amounts of methane into the atmosphere, which is a greenhouse gas 23 times more harmful than carbon dioxide. Studies have confirmed, conclusively, that vegan and vegetarian diets are more sustainable than meat-based diets.
But it’s not just eating more plant-based food that is important; it’s also eating food that is locally produced. If my vegan diet consists of eating avocados imported from South America, I might as well toss my carbon footprint out of the window. It’s as important eating local as eating vegetarian when it comes to the climate battle.
Although I am a meat-eater, I have grown up in a vegetarian household. Cooking meat was a once in a blue moon thing, so personally, it has never been a challenge to survive on a primarily vegetarian diet. The same is true for a lot of Indian households, where traditionally people have eaten a vegetarian diet, which isn’t because of the climate crisis they could foresee, but because it was what their religion dictated. I was eating a lot more meat when I lived in Edinburgh because of the constant and easy availability of processed meat. Meat and seafood were available however I wanted it: uncooked, semi-cooked, fully cooked, dehydrated, or frozen. Yet in Delhi now, I am eating meat once a week or even once every two weeks, because I am generally cooking it from scratch.
Eating meat has been cultural and traditional across the world for centuries, and the world cannot be expected to change its traditions overnight, even if a climate disaster is at its doorstep - so why do people expect the Chinese to do it?
One thing about the novel coronavirus that is ravaging the world right now is certain: that the virus emerged from bats. Whether it ‘jumped’ from bats to animals and then to humans, or whether it jumped from bats straight to humans, is yet undetermined. That the coronavirus emerged from a wildlife market in Wuhan is the most touted explanation, but even that is not yet conclusive. China has placed a temporary ban on wildlife trading, and the UN has called for the ban to be made permanent as it is clear that live wildlife markets are ticking time bombs that become breeding grounds for the emergence of zoonotic viruses.
Yet, there have been many who have expressed selective outrage over these supposed ‘exotic’ practices of eating food that is unfamiliar and unacceptable to them. Let’s not pretend that it is the eating of only some animals that can cause a catastrophe like this. Animal trading and farming is a hotbed of viruses, as antibiotics are further injected into the meat we consume, making us immune to them. Elizabeth Maruma Mrema, the acting executive secretary of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, in this article for The Guardian, says that two-thirds of viruses and infections emerge from wildlife. Bird flu spreads in chickens and can be transferred in humans as well. Swine flu occurs in pigs and a particular strain of it, H1N1, wreaked havoc in the world in 2009 and emerged first in the USA. A scene from the movie Contagion comes to mind: the last scene, which shows the origin of the virus, the pig that the chef touched before shaking hands with the customer. The pig was the intermediary host between the bat and the human - which could have been entirely avoided if the pig was not eaten in the first place.
Of course, plants have viruses too, but the conversation is about reducing the risks and the chances. One doesn’t have to give up meat and non-vegetarian food entirely, but it is important to understand that certain practices cause a bigger impact than others, and to reduce the volume of these activities might create a healthier world. Reducing the consumption of meat on a worldwide level is not just a big step in the direction towards hugely reducing the chances of a pandemic like this one from ever happening again, it is also saving the planet from what promises to be an even bigger catastrophe if unstopped: the climate crisis.
The world took the coronavirus a lot more seriously than they did climate change. And a greater vegetarian diet is definitely an argument in favour of avoiding diseases emerging from wildlife that can snowball into a pandemic. This step towards vegetarianism is nothing but a means of averting climate change, and it doesn’t have to be done by changing a culture, habit, or tradition overnight. It begins with being aware of the cost of our choices and then making those choices. To slowly reduce the consumption of meat, and even little reductions, provided that a majority of people do it, will make a significant dent. Everyone in the world doesn’t have to turn vegan, but if a great number of people reduce meat consumption, it can prevent pandemics and climate change, which is what I consider a win-win.