COVID-19, ecological justice, and veganism
29 May 2020
COVID-19 highlights the need for ecological justice. Hannah Battersby explore the links between Covid-19, ecological justice and veganism
I recently shared an article on Facebook which discussed the link between the human consumption of animals and the emergence of disease. This connection is well-documented and is being discussed frequently right now, so I was surprised at the vitriolic anti-vegan backlash I received. I was accused of using the current crisis to spread vegan propaganda, but what I was trying to say was that human and animal wellbeing are inextricably linked, and COVID19 exemplifies this relationship.
I intended to highlight that the consumption of meat is a threat to human health regardless of where, or how, it takes place. As a moral philosopher and vegan whose doctoral research concerns interspecies and ecological justice, I have been intrigued by the rampant cognitive dissonance in discussion around COVID-19 and animal consumption. Practices of animal consumption in one culture have been scapegoated without recognition of the overlapping ethical and practical problems shared with other, closer to home, practices. In a similar way, the symmetry and connection between injustices to human and nonhuman communities have been largely ignored.
COVID-19 may have originated from a wet market in China. Some (but not all) of these markets sell a variety of exotic animals that are slaughtered on-site. Much disgust, blame, and criticism has been directed at wet markets despite the fact it has not been proven that COVID-19 started at one. In fact, its origin and the source of its transmission may well be industrial agriculture, as has been the case for other viruses like swine flu.
Despite the uncertainty about its cause, much media attention is directed towards calls to shut down ‘wet markets’ (often conflating wet markets with wildlife markets). Many commentators (rightly) see wrongness in practices of animal slaughter here, but (wrongly) locate that wrongness within the cultural idiosyncrasies of such practices: within the animal transport and slaughter practices unique to China. I have yet to hear politicians question to the same extent the fact that, in the midst of a global pandemic caused by animal consumption, meat products are still flying off supermarket shelves, and intensive animal production continues to increase here in the UK. Intensive animal consumption practices of the kind being increasingly used here and in the USA also carry the risk of the transmission of diseases from animals to humans (zoonotic diseases), yet they are going largely unnoticed in the public moral consciousness amidst the clamour to denounce wet markets.
Whether slaughtered while conscious at a wet market in China or after being stunned at an abattoir in the UK, an animal loses its life. Death is harmful to animals regardless of whether they suffer subjectively at death or not. Suffering compounds the objective harm and is a distinct, morally significant experience, yet any slaughter does the same objective harm: an animal loses its life, and the meaningful experiences and activities that it might have contained - often very prematurely compared to its potential lifespan.
With this in mind, I suggest we consider whether intensive processes of rearing and slaughtering animals are any more desirable in terms of morality or public health than more traditional practices. It could be argued that, for the consumer who values 'naturalness' with regards to animal welfare, more traditional – i.e. less industrial - forms of animal rearing might be preferable (indeed, research tends to show that consumers associate higher welfare with more 'natural', less intensive farming methods). Much of the horror at intensive animal agriculture that galvanises concern for animal welfare stems from the way animals are perceived as - and treated like - objects; hooked up to machinery that moves them toward death and then dismantles and shrink wraps their bodies, ultimately depositing them onto supermarket shelves in faraway places. While these practices are widely accepted in the Global North, other cultures are uncomfortable with industrial production, with the urbanisation and supermarketisation of food (particularly meat) trade, rejecting the Western supermarket paradigm in favour of traditional markets. Wet markets (to be distinguished from wildlife markets) prevail because they are fresher, cheaper, and steeped in cultural significance. They are also social hubs of community and knowledge-sharing which respect local produce and tradition, and the freshness of produce along with the closer relationship between farmer and purchaser render them more appealing than supermarkets, for fresh food.
Even if one is not moved by the chilling (and hazardous) methods of industrial animal rearing nor the fact that they ultimately have the same harmful outcome for the animal, it is difficult to ignore the ethical implications of our complicity within the global animal consumption industry. Driven by humanity's desire to consume meat, the worldwide animal agriculture industry is a key driver of zoonotic disease, pollution, climate change, deforestation, and biodiversity loss. This industry is responsible for rainforest destruction and land clearing; depletion of water resources; and diversion of food away from hungry humans to animals destined for slaughter (for example, over 70% of soy produce is fed to livestock, and over a quarter of fish that are caught get fed to farmed fish).
Clearly, these repercussions are human justice issues. For example, clearing rainforest harms the local human communities by displacing them physically and culturally. It can also spread disease by uprooting wildlife. In addition, BAME communities suffer disproportionately from environmental ills (this is often termed environmental racism), including those resulting from agricultural practices. This kind of exploitative behaviour is also a nonhuman justice issue, for two reasons. Firstly, it constitutes injustice to the animals that lose their habitats when ecosystems they depend on get destroyed. Secondly, it harms the environment itself. For example, when plant species are eradicated this causes biodiversity loss, which can be interpreted as a form of harm to the environment: a harm that diminishes or destroys a defining attribute of that environment (e.g. diversity). It can be characterised as an injustice because it results from exploitation and domination at the hands of a group abusing its position of power.
COVID-19 is amplifying these injustices. In the human case, those who suffer from marginalisation and inequity are harmed the most. The disabled, the elderly, those with underlying health conditions, refugees, the poor, and indigenous communities are all being burdened disproportionately with the harms and effects of this pandemic. Similarly, injustices to the more-than-human realm are being exacerbated.In the case of animals, laboratory animals going unused due to laboratory shutdowns are being euthanised; animals kept in zoos across the world are suffering from hunger and sickness - they might even be fed to each other; livestock animals endure yet more suffering during transit, due to delays crossing borders. Regarding the environment, the high usage of PPE such as masks and the fear of virus transmission amongst the public mean there’s been increased usage of single-use plastics, thus an increase in plastic waste.
Due to these interconnected harms, caring about human justice and welfare (e.g. fair distribution of food, land, water, and environmental benefits and burdens; representation and participation within legal and political institutions) must involve equal and concurrent concern for justice to, and for, the nonhuman world. Therefore, I advocate a holistic perspective of ecological justice, and I see veganism as one way of realising it. This approach does not prioritise one form of life over others, but instead acknowledges the intrinsic value of the many kinds of life on Earthand seeks to extend moral standing, political recognition, and institutional consideration to all, for the welfare of all.
A vegan lifestyle is one way of enacting the ethos of ecological justice. It is one initial step most of us here in the Global North can take to work towards reducing destructive and hazardous invasion of global economic industries into nature, which might help us avoid even worse pandemics than COVID19, as well as disastrous climate change and the many injustices this will inflict on both human and nonhuman communities alike.
When I originally posted about the connection between human consumption of animals and COVID-19, I did not do so with the intention of advocating for veganism - yet the backlash to that Facebook post has served to galvanise my activism. I suggest that we all try to realise the perspective of holistic ecological justice, for the sake of our fellow human beings, the nonhuman life forms we share occupancy of the planet with, and the environment itself. The most straightforward way for most individuals to do so right now is to adopt a compassionate attitude towards animals and the environment via a plant-based, sustainable pattern of consumption
Hannah Battersby is a PhD student in the Philosophy department at the University of Manchester and is affiliated to the SCI. Her research concerns ecological justice and the extension of justice to the more-than-human community.
This article first appeared in Discover Society (May 2020).