Do you remember the last pre-shelter-in-place social gathering you attended? Mine was my regular Wednesday evening Torah study session back in March.
COVID-19 cases were rising in the Northeast and our group was anxious about being together. Unusual for us, welcome hugs were not free flowing. I felt sadness when it was time to leave; my gut told me we wouldn’t be seeing each other for a while.
I was wrong.
Three months later, our group still meets weekly, thanks to Zoom. While our Rabbi is no longer facilitating, we’ve each pushed aside our discomforts and taken a turn as group leader. Despite the lack of physical proximity, we’ve grown closer. The process of collectively stepping out of our comfort zones, supporting and learning from each other, has catalyzed strong bonds. I’m proud of us.
Recently, my friend Jill led a discussion in which we explored confidence and leadership and when and how we each use — or don’t use — courage to speak out for change. Jill asked us to consider who we know that exemplifies great and courageous leadership. For me, climate-movement galvanizer, Greta Thunberg, immediately came to mind, followed by dozens of other brave and passionate truth tellers. One of them is Dr Neal Barnard.
Thinking about the questions Jill raised in Torah study, I am reminded that effective change-makers lead with compassion. This is certainly the case for Dr Barnard who I recently interviewed about COVID-19’s relationship to our dietary habits.
Dr Barnard is humble and positive, and not afraid to challenge accepted wisdoms to fight for principles he holds dear. To get a feel for his tenderness watch this beautiful song video he wrote and directed.
Dr Barnard heads-up the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM), an organization that fights against injustices and for life-protecting, life-promoting policy change.
PCRM aims to guide people towards a plant-based diet for the sake of our health, the welfare of animals and the planet. During the interview I was reminded that all three are inextricably linked and that a plant-based diet can help stop the origin and spread of future pandemics.
Origin of COVID 19
COVID 19 is a zoonotic disease that likely originated in bats, at a live animal market in Wuhan, China, and then made its way to humans via pangolins. These are one of the most trafficked mammals in the world. They are eaten, worn and used for medicinal purposes.
Dr Barnard explains that “live animal markets are a welcome mat to coronaviruses like COVID-19”. For this reason, PCRM initiated a petition to urge the Surgeon General to shut down U.S. live animal markets. The goal? Preventing a similar pandemic from developing.
Yes, live animal markets exist in the US. They are not unique to China. Consider this, there are 80 to 90 live animal markets in New York City alone.
Live animal markets are not the only concern, though.
Zoonotic diseases emerge from factory farms throughout the world. Factory farms are breeding grounds that have the potential to allow viruses to make the lethal jump from animals to humans.
In order to meet consumer demand, while maximizing corporate profits, the livestock industry raises animals in very confined conditions. They’re transported to slaughter. They’re killed and then consumed. Humans come in close proximity to the animals throughout this process. Here lies the risk of future pandemics. Recently published research suggests almost three quarters of the world’s 60 largest meat, fish, and dairy companies are at “high risk” for fostering zoonotic pandemics.
Spreading of COVID-19
Not only is the industrial food system guilty of fostering zoonotic diseases, it also plays a significant role in spreading disease amongst workers. As of July 2020, The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention examined COVID-19 data in meat processing facilities across 14 states. Almost 1 out of every 10 workers has been diagnosed with the disease.
Forget social distancing. Workers toil in cramped conditions, side by side. Many of the largest clusters of COVID-19 have been in food processing facilities where the nature of the job — working on a rapidly moving assembly line while butchering animals — makes it difficult to social distance.
Meat is Not Essential
Claiming meat is essential, President Trump signed an executive order forcing meat processing plants to remain open. Meat is not essential. Humans do not need to consume it to obtain protein, iron or any other nutrients. In fact, Dr Barnard explains that “replacing meat with plant protein could actually significantly boost Americans’ health. A recent Harvard study found that those who ate the most plant protein were 27% less likely to die of any cause and 29% less likely to die from heart disease, compared with people who ate the least.”
As meat is not essential, and safety measures have not been consistently implemented by meat companies, workers are put at unnecessary risk. In response to the great suffering and death caused to workers, PCRM has joined a coalition led by the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), a civil rights organization protecting the rights of Hispanic Americans. They have taken action to boycott meat.
Dr. Barnard says, “We at the Physicians Committee have been concerned about the health effects more broadly for people consuming meat. When people consume these products, we know that over the long run, they can be very dangerous. But right now, if you step into a meatpacking facility, you could be dead in two weeks.”
The government should enforce regulations to protect workers. Dr. Barnard explains, “I grew up in Fargo, North Dakota, and my extended family is all in the meat industry, and they’re good and decent folks. Like the tobacco farmers before them, they got involved in an industry thinking they were making a product that was safe and healthful, but science caught up with them, and we realized that tobacco causes lung cancer. That put the industry in a tough position, and it put the workers in a tough position, too. But the government jumped in and supported a transition away from those products. A generation later, that’s exactly where we are with meat.”
The Simple Solution
Here’s the simple solution for all of us. Eat a plant-based diet. Keep animal products off our plates. Dr Barnard says “if we leave them alone, we don’t get these animal based viruses.” And as a bonus we realize “healthier bodies, a cleaner environment, and no suffering and death for our fellow earthlings.”
Want some guidance adopting a plant-based diet? Check out PCRM’s enormously popular and free 21- Day Kickstart program.