The Public Health Case for Veganism

We’ve spent a considerable amount of time denigrating the overblown health claims people often make in their vegan advocacy. We’ve written about this in blog posts and podcast episodes, including an episode we just recorded recently about The Game Changers. More recently, I’ve softened my criticism of the health approach to vegan advocacy slightly, acknowledging that research showing the benefits of a plant-based diet is not as muddy as some would like you to think.

There is another aspect of the health angle in vegan advocacy that I think holds considerable merit: public health.

It’s fairly well-documented that most meat is contaminated, with feces, salmonella, and e. coli, to name a few. And then there’s antibiotic resistance. These are somewhat common talking points in vegan advocacy. But there’s something else you may not have thought of, something that came to my attention recently.

Animal agriculture is a breeding ground for aggressive diseases, ones designed to beat the human immune system. This isn’t some conspiracy theory — it’s already happening.

And it’s really not new. Ever since we started keeping livestock, we’ve had to come face to face with the diseases that can enter the population of animals, mutate, and become more deadly than ever. Foot-and-Mouth disease, Trichinosis, swine flu, avian flu — these diseases started on farms. On top of killing the infected animals — including by way of early slaughter — they can kill us, too.

More recently, we’ve seen the coronavirus outbreak, thought to be transmitted to humans via bats or pangolins. Some dispute that bats are to blame, instead pointing the finger solely at the pangolins. In fact, according to Nature,

The coronavirus emerged in the Chinese city of Wuhan in December, and is thought to have leapt to humans at a seafood and wild-animal market, where many of the first people to become infected worked. Pangolins were not listed on an inventory of items sold at the market — although the illegality of trading pangolins could explain this omission.

While pangolins are not factory-farmed like the cows, pigs and chickens involved in other disease outbreaks, it’s hard to deny the connection between the consumption of animals and subsequent epidemics.

Not all diseases are caused by animal agriculture. The SARs outbreak of 2002-2003, for example, has not been shown to be connected to livestock.

It’s hard to avoid acknowledging, however, that there would be fewer disease outbreaks without animal agriculture. That would translate into less human and animal suffering.

It might not be the biggest motivator for veganism, but it can certainly be one factor in a constellation that helps people see why eschewing meat and animal products is a good idea. We should not shy away from it.

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