Continuous origination of new viruses has posed a serious question on our eating habits and lifestyle. For a long, humankind has been doing un-human activities to fulfill its dietary requirements. Research has established that new viruses keep originating primarily because of continuous human intervention in wildlife and our food habits and priorities. As a result, we are facing serious implications of Covid-19 and we seriously need to re-think our food habits and priorities. But, it is not the first time that a virus hosted by animals got transferred to humans. Some of the past zoonotic (animal transferred) diseases are:
Ebola virus: The disease is believed to be transferred to humans from infected bats or infected non-human primates. It was first identified in 1976 near the Ebola River in what is now called the Democratic Republic of the Congo. People can catch four strains of the virus through contact with infected blood or bodily fluids from an animal carrying the virus. That person can then spread the virus to others through close contact.
Ebola has a fatality rate of 50 per cent, though it varied from 25 per cent to 90 per cent in varied situations.
Influenza pandemics: The 1918 influenza pandemic swept the world within months, killing an estimated 50 million people — more than any other illness in recorded history for the short time frame involved. The H1N1 influenza virus that infected more than one-third of the globe had an avian origin. First identified in the United States by military personnel in the spring of 1918, the virus killed an estimated 675,000 Americans, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention(CDC).
Bubonic Plague: Plague is a bacterial disease caused by Yersinia pestis. It is carried by rodents and even cats, and hops to humans through bites from infected fleas (often rat fleas). In 14th century, some 75 million people died- at a time when there were only about 360 million living on Earth. Death came in a matter of days, and it was excruciatingly painful.
HIV/AIDS: HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, has been traced to a type of chimpanzee in Central Africa, according to the CDC. The chimp version of this disease (simian immunodeficiency virus, or SIV) was likely passed to humans when they hunted these animals for meat, getting exposed to their infected blood. In 2018, 770,000 people died from causes related to HIV, and 1.7 million people were infected with the virus that year. At the end of 2018, 37.9 million people were living with HIV, according to the WHO. Two-thirds of HIV infections are in certain countries in Africa.
Coronavirus: The coronavirus that causes the disease COVID-19 was first identified at the end of December 2019 in Wuhan, China, where officials suspect the source was somehow linked to a seafood market there. Genetic analyses of the virus suggest it originated in bats. Covid-19 has globally caused 1.96 million deaths so far, with around 40 million still infected.
You would be surprised to note, that, our food habits have not only caused the disease and deaths, but also have a serious contribution in global warming. The global livestock industry produces more greenhouse gas emissions than all cars, planes, trains and ships combined. Research led by Oxford Martin School finds widespread adoption of vegetarian diet would cut food-related emissions by 63%. Meat and dairy specifically accounts for around 14.5 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions, according to the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO). Talking in particular, beef and lamb consumption is responsible for half of all farmed animal emissions. This is associated with the fact that, cow and sheep are ‘ruminants’- meaning that their stomachs contain specialized bacteria capable of digesting tough and fibrous material, such as grass. The digestive process causes the animals to belch out methane, a greenhouse gas that is around 28-34 times more powerful than CO2 over a 100-year period. Adding to it, another major cause is that this dairy and meat producing industry has caused an enormous level of deforestation and converted the forestry to pasture land.
We should also not forget the pain and suffering, that, animals, birds and aquatic life have to face in all this process. Being on top of the food chain, it should be our primary duty to protect and conserve those below us, but we are doing the other way round and in result, are getting introduced to a number of viruses and disease.
But, as the Covid pandemic is passing, people have started to realize the importance of plant-based, animal-free diet. There has been a visible positive behavioral change in the nutritional habits of people around the world, such as a shift in eating habits especially among urban populations, who generally (pre-COVID) tend to consume more processed fast foods. Trends, including a return to home cooking and baking, an increase in demand for organic, plant-based, vegan and vegetarian foods and a reduction in demand for what are perceived as more exotic foods. A recent consumer research study in the UK indicated that during the pandemic, vegan diets became more appealing to over 12% of British consumers, with a quarter of young millennial (aged 21-30) being significantly more attracted to a vegan diet.
Talking in long terms, there has been a noticeable change in meat and dairy consumers too. A UN Consumer Survey Report states that people in countries like China, India, Brazil, US, UK and the EU bloc hold an increase in awareness of climate change and its impact with a willingness to give up dairy and fish products. Greenhouse gas emissions from the UK agricultural industry have fallen by more than 20 per cent since 1990. But these are just the initial numbers and we have a long path to travel.
It is quite disappointing that it takes pandemics like these to make us aware about our food habits and their health impacts. People have started to re-think their food priorities as our food choices can have an impact on emissions as well as on environment and bio-diversity. With proper choice of diet, we can add to the idea of sustainable development and make this world a far better place to live, for all living-beings.