Above photo: Workers at Jones Meat & Food Services in Rigby, Idaho on May 26, 2020. Natalie Behring/AFP via Getty Images.
The destruction and exploitation of non-human life has forced different kinds of animals into closer and closer contact with each other, increasing the likelihood that viruses like COVID-19 will emerge.
We are animals. While human beings often repress this basic fact, the novel coronavirus has revealed our connection to and dependence on the well-being of other creatures. In various ways, our disregard for other species led to and worsened this pandemic. To mount an adequate response—and to prevent future disasters—we need to start taking animals into consideration.
Like countless fearsome diseases, including Ebola and AIDS, COVID-19 is zoonotic in origin, meaning it jumped from one species to another (likely from bats to humans). The destruction and exploitation of non-human life has forced different kinds of animals into closer and closer contact with each other, increasing the likelihood that such viruses will emerge.
While Chinese wet markets have received abundant (and xenophobic) media attention as a possible source of the outbreak, the American meat industry has also helped to create pathogen-friendly conditions worldwide. The increased demand for meat in China, and indeed globally, is hardly spontaneous—it is engineered by a powerful industry that spends vast sums advertising its products and promoting the misconception that meat is key to a healthy and desirable diet. This propaganda has its roots in the United States, which leads the world in per capita meat consumption.
Factory farms fuel the spread of viruses by cramming thousands of increasingly genetically similar animals together in environments where they often have no access to sunshine or exercise and cannot escape their own filth. Rather than provide the conditions and care under which animals could stay healthy, they are fed an antibiotic-laced diet in a foolhardy effort to ward off disease that actually breeds drug-resistant superbugs in the long term.
In the United States, meat is a $900 billion industry. Hunger for flesh and for profits are intertwined in a system that shows profound disregard for animal and human life. Vegetarians should not be too smug about what they eat, since those who harvest vegetables are also mistreated and underpaid. But meat-plant and slaughterhouse workers endure particularly horrific and dangerous working conditions. Meat factories are staffed largely by low-income immigrants and the majority have no health insurance or sick leave. Workers are quickly fired and replaced for being sick or injured. These facilities process thousands of animals a day with hundreds of employees standing shoulder to shoulder conducting grueling, repetitive, and hazardous work.
Trump’s decision to use the Defense Production Act to force meatpacking plants to open was a death sentence for many vulnerable workers of color. As of April 27, the day before the DPA was invoked, close to 5,000 plant workers in nineteen states had already tested positive for the virus. As of this writing 11,000 workers in three of the country’s biggest meat processors (Tyson Foods, Smithfield Foods, and JBS) have been infected. Nationwide sixty-three workers have died. Reports of discrimination against Latinx workers and their communities over the outbreaks are becoming widespread. The situation is so dire that the Latinx civil rights organization LULAC called for Iowans to boycott corporate meat and eggs through May to show solidarity with workers, and the nation’s largest union representing meatpacking workers also supports plant closures.
Eating less meat, eggs, and dairy is salutatory on many fronts: not only reducing the risk of future disease outbreaks and putting an end to an industry with no regard for worker well-being or safety, but also mitigating the various ecological crises we face.
The consumption of animal products is a leading contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, water consumption and contamination, and global deforestation. Animal industries are also prime drivers of the sixth extinction. Humans and livestock now make up more than 96 percent of mammalian biomass on the planet, replacing wildlife and wild spaces with farmed animals whom we treat no better than assembly line parts—like the millions culled with no pangs of conscience during the pandemic. Reducing our consumption of meat would save innumerable lives, human and nonhuman.
Animal industries—economic behemoths that concentrate wealth and intensify ecological and biological destruction—should be of concern to anyone interested in how capitalism functions. Yet the left typically has very little to say about them.
At minimum, leftists should unite around the demand to end industrialized animal farming, a global business that brings in $2 trillion a year. Liberals and progressives are taking steps in this direction. On May 7, Senators Elizabeth Warren and Cory Booker announced they are co-sponsoring a bill to phase out large-scale factory farming by 2040. Why is the left not leading the calls to break up big meat—or, better yet, calling for the abolition of the sector? Some leftists maintain that sustainable animal farming practices can solve the meat crisis, but that is akin to the climate movement demanding reforms of the fossil fuel industry instead of its demise.
There are compelling epidemiological, economic, and ecological reasons to abolish meat, but more fundamental ethical concerns merit reflection. Socialists quick to question private property rarely interrogate the ownership of animals. As leftists, we have a duty to ask what entitles human beings to treat our fellow creatures like mere things. What gives our species the right to commodify other sentient beings and relentlessly dispossess them?
Between farming, ranching, and feed crops, the livestock industry devours 40 percent of the world’s habitable surface. A vegan food system would consume a tenth as much land. A concerted program of rewilding would reduce the outbreak of new epidemics by reducing contact between humans and wild animals and restoring biodiversity, curbing the risk of zoonoses while also sucking carbon out of the atmosphere. If our species were reasonable—the trait that supposedly sets us apart from other animals—we would embark on such a program. To respond to the pandemic we need to broaden our political imaginations. Our conception of solidarity must cross the species barrier.
Astra Taylor is the author, most recently, of Democracy May Not Exist, but We’ll Miss It When It’s Gone.
Sunaura Taylor is the author of Beasts of Burden: Animal and Disability Liberation.