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What connects poultry to pandemics and the future of the planet

In her new book, senior Peta executive Poorva Joshipura warns of a dire future if our meat and dairy consumption continues unchecked

A worker in protective gear at a poultry farm in Dahanu, Maharashtra
A worker in protective gear at a poultry farm in Dahanu, Maharashtra

Reading Poorva Joshipura’s book, For A Moment Of Taste, as the world struggles to contain a pandemic allegedly caused by the zoonotic transmission of a novel coronavirus, feels surreal but urgent. Currently senior vice-president of international operations with the Peta (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) Foundation, Joshipura’s mission is to make you aware of How What You Eat Impacts Animals, The Planet And Your Health, as she says in the subtitle. And the picture she paints is catastrophic.

About 77 billion land animals and trillions of marine ones are killed every year to feed human beings. If the purpose of breeding these hapless creatures wasn’t cruel enough, the life cycle of farm animals is riddled with violence and horror at every stage. Born and raised in overcrowded spaces, they are forced to spend their short time on earth in unhygienic circumstances, then taken to dirty slaughterhouses where they are butchered clumsily, in full view of other animals.

Poorva Joshipura
Poorva Joshipura

Humanity, if not common sense, demands that we end this cycle of suffering and shift to a plant-based diet, which would be beneficial for us and the earth. And the further we delay the move, the greater the chances of new pandemics befalling the world in the years to come, says Joshipura. Mint spoke to her about the future of the food industry in a post-covid world, among other matters. Edited excerpts:

What are your thoughts on covid-19 and its relation to dietary habits?

As you read in the book, written before the covid-19 crisis, I warned that the time is ripe for a deadly pandemic, according to experts. That dire event has come to pass. Like covid-19, SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) and various deadly (kinds of ) bird flus have been linked back to spreading through live animal meat markets in China. Many of the animals who end up there, like chickens, come from factory farms. Covid-19 and SARS are believed to have infected humans through wildlife used for meat but as bird flu shows, chickens are also a high-risk animal for zoonotic disease.

In live animal meat markets, which exist in India and countries throughout the world, animals, often of a variety of species—who are routinely sick or injured—are crammed in cages right next to each other, where their blood, pus, urine and faeces mix. This creates the perfect opportunity for diseases to jump species and infect humans.

Meanwhile, factory farms house chickens, cows—even fish—and other animals by the thousands or sometimes by the millions, confining them to cages, crates or stalls barely larger than their own bodies or to severely crowded tanks or sheds. Antibiotics help factory farms stay in business, since packed, filthy conditions mean diseases can spread quickly and result in high mortality. Antibiotic overuse makes factory farms perfect breeding grounds for superbugs—new, aggressive pathogens—and simultaneously creates the potential for rendering important drugs for humans ineffective.

Do you think the future of food, especially the consumption of meat, will change once this pandemic passes?

Ingrid Newkirk, founder of Peta and its affiliates worldwide, recently advised in a letter to the World Health Organization, “It’s a matter of when—not if—the next pandemic will occur, as long as live animal markets are permitted to continue endangering both humans and other animals." The same goes for factory farms and slaughter—the meat trade is putting our lives at risk. As individuals, we can ensure that we are part of the solution, not the problem, by eating vegan. Preventing the next pandemic is in our hands.

The worldwide lockdown has precipitated a crisis in animal farming, with millions of poultry and other meat-producing animals being culled, especially in the US. Has the pandemic pushed the meat and milk industry to an inflection point, or is it just a short-term, knee-jerk reaction?

Culling—a euphemism for the mass killing of animals—is business as usual for factory farms and slaughterhouses when problems caused by its own industry emerge—like chickens found infected with H5N1 bird flu (which kills 60% of humans who catch it). Scientists overwhelmingly believe we have a live animal meat market to blame for the covid-19 crisis. During culling, animals may be buried alive, shot, killed by way of blunt force trauma, electrocuted, suffocated, gassed or disposed of by other gruesome means.

In the US, slaughterhouses have become covid-19 hot spots since their personnel work in close proximity to each other, with at least 30 American meat-packing workers having died and more than 10,000 infected (at the time of the interview). While some American meat facilities temporarily closed, many are now in the process of reopening. This isn’t a surprise—slaughterhouses have been criticized for mistreating their workers.

In India, food choices are tied to politics, caste and religion. This connection has deepened in recent years, leading to violence. Has militant vegetarianism been counterproductive to Peta’s work on animal rights?

Sadly, animals are often made pawns in human conflicts. The fundamental bases of vegan living are live and let live, non-violence and compassion. Anything that falls outside of these edicts has nothing to do with vegan living and should not be confused with the vegan movement. Citizens must also not confuse genuine, law-abiding enforcement of animal transport laws by the police and animal welfare officers with violence and hooliganism by fanatics—they are not the same and have nothing to do with each other.

Similarly, there are people who think eating beef and turning a blind eye to violence against animals is showing tolerance of, or solidarity with, other communities. These individuals are misguided. Meat-eating is not required by any community and living vegan is for everyone. There are vegans of all faiths.

Consumption and production of meat don’t appear front and centre in the narrative of climate change mitigation, especially in India, where the discourse is steered towards vehicular and industrial emissions. How can this be corrected?

You are right—the conversation has to be broadened now, for India’s own sake. Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN figures put greenhouse gas emissions from animals reared for food at somewhere between 14.5-18% of all human-caused emissions, more than that caused by transportation. That is more than all of the cars, trucks, ships, planes and other vehicles in the world combined.

A report released in 2010 by the UN Environment Programme’s International Panel of Sustainable Resource Management points out that as the global population swells towards an anticipated 9.1 billion people by 2050, diets based on meat, eggs and dairy will be unsustainable. The report further stated that a global shift towards vegan eating is necessary to protect the world from hunger and the worst impacts of climate change.

And while India has over 190 million hungry people and 163 million without access to safe water, a study published by the National Academy of Sciences reveals that raising animals for meat, eggs and dairy uses a staggering one-third of the world’s freshwater resources, as well as one-third of the world’s global cropland as feed for animals.

What specific challenges does society pose for the mission Peta seeks to achieve in India?

The biggest challenge is that the meat, egg and dairy industries do not want people to realize how they harm animals and the planet and how the consumption of these foods contributes to heart disease, diabetes, certain cancers and other ailments. They also continue to influence eating habits by spending crores on advertising—including that which may be disguised as a message in public interest.

For instance, many Indians believe eggs are good for health thanks to the 1980s “Sunday ho ya Monday, roz khao ande" campaign. This was an egg industry campaign created to boost egg sales. At the time, the industry made their advertisements look like health advisories instead of the mere marketing ploys they were.

There are huge economic consequences, especially in terms of the employment of millions, tied to the meat, dairy and fishery lobbies. Given this nexus between livelihood and profiteering, do you think it would ever be possible to change the status quo?

As the demand changes, so does the supply. In the US, big meat companies are now selling plant-based burgers or other plant-based products. Dairy companies abroad are also starting to invest in plant-based milk (such as that made from soya, oats, or other plants instead of from animals). Then there are places like the New York dairy farm, Elmhurst, that has now wholly switched to plant-milk production.

In India, many people opted for jackfruit instead of meat during the coronavirus crisis. And when chicken sales in India recently plummeted, Peta India sent chicken-meat chain KFC a letter suggesting that it add a vegan (that is, wholly plant-based) “chicken" option to its menu, as other KFC restaurants abroad have already done. In India, Good Dot is among the companies offering vegan “meats".

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