Contributors: Paula Ramirez, Christopher Streuli
Edited by Andrea Fedder
Read a note from the author
A story. A possibility. A choice?
This fictional article describes a brighter future based on the actual events unfolding until 30th March 2020.
Writing this article helped me personally to relate in the most positive way possible to this very challenging situation, to move from fear to trust. Millions of less privileged humans than I might have to fight for survival in the following days, weeks and months, and will experience extreme hardship and suffering. That’s in addition to the millions of humans that were already in such situations before corona hit, and the billions of animals that suffer in our factory farms – all of them without any credible hope for improvement of their situation.
This article is my attempt at using my privilege in the best way I know how. Specifically, by outlining a path out of corona that would create a better world with less suffering for so many. My deepest wish is that corona will be the very crossroad that brings us onto this path – and that an even bigger warning shot won’t even be needed (spoiler alert).
To new paths!
With love, Kaspar
PS: If you enjoy the same privilege as I and have time at hand, I encourage you to write your own ‘2030-article’, outlining a future world in which a situation you care about has significantly improved – whatever that may be.
Although this was widely known, we seemed incapable of changing our systems and behaviours in a way that would alter our course – like a ship steering towards an iceberg with its rudder blocked. And while on the outside our planet was burning literally, our inner landscapes were in turmoil as well, and far away from the peace and harmony that humans naturally strive for. We had removed ourselves more and more from the very nature that was there to nurture us, not understanding that we’re part of it. The wealth gap between the rich and the poor was bigger than ever before in world history, with the world’s richest 1% owning 44% of the world’s wealth. While there would have been enough resources to provide every human being with a life of safety and dignity, we didn’t manage to divide these resources fairly among us. This resulted in refugees, wars, crime, fear and instability. The leaders that emerged during that time reflected and harvested the existing mindsets of competition, exploitation, scarcity and win-lose, and managed international relations accordingly.
Then came a shock to the system in the form of COVID-19. It would change everything.
To describe all the positive socio-economic developments of the past 10 years would turn this piece into a book, so I’ll focus exclusively on the changes in our relationship to non-human animals and to nature in general.
Even though China and Vietnam had taken the decision to ban all wildlife trade as a consequence of the virus, it’s no surprise that in this climate of extreme fear and despair, people at large were not yet thinking about measures of how future pandemics could be prevented – the entire focus was on crisis-management.
To understand what happened next, we have to set the scene with regards to livestock farming and wildlife trade. Subsequently, we look at what happened 10 days, 10 months and finally 10 years after March 30st.
Pre-corona: 2 ticking time bombs
Back in 2020, the human demand for animal flesh and products such as dairy and eggs was enormous by any scale. We slaughtered roughly 80 billion land animals for food every year (for comparison: that’s more than 8 times the number of humans alive at the time), or 3 trillion animals if you included fish. Of those roughly 3 trillion animals, more than 90% found themselves in factory farms. If you only looked at farmed land animals (i.e. excluding fish), the percentage was around 74% (i.e. 74% of all farmed land animals were factory-farmed).
Factory farms were operations in which animals were treated like commodities, with zero or very little regard for their suffering or social needs. The move from holistic, extensive farms from the pre-WWII period to these evermore intensive meat-, dairy- and egg factories had resulted in a massive price-drop of animal products, and by now ever more animals had to be grown ever faster and in ever smaller spaces to maximize profitability. This not only led to mental illness (e.g. cannibalism) among these animals, but unsurprisingly also to a public health nightmare.
That’s why we started to feed antibiotics non-therapeutically, or pre-emptively, to a large percentage of factory-farmed animals. For example, in the US, the amount of antibiotics fed to livestock was more than 6 times higher than what was given to humans. This practice created ideal conditions for drug-resistant pathogens, and thus a huge public health danger.
Within expert circles, factory farming and wildlife trade were often referred to as the ‘2 ticking public health time-bombs’. That was the situation when COVID-19 appeared on the scene – here’s what followed.
10 days after: The 2nd half of the chessboard
By the beginning of April 2020, more than 40% of humans were in lock-down due to the virus. China managed to avoid another outbreak and was sending doctors and material to support the worst-hit nations. But the situation in the rest of the world looked dire: Most European nations and the US finally found themselves in the ‘2nd half of the chessboard’, a term used to describe the unimaginably high numbers produced by exponential growth once a certain threshold is reached. By now they had run out of hospital beds and health equipment, and doctors had to make ‘life vs. death’-decisions on an hourly basis.
Despite their decisive actions, the virus couldn’t be contained and was spreading fast, especially in poorer communities who couldn’t self-isolate as easily.
Governments in Africa and South America, as well as India and Russia tried to learn from the mistakes made in Europe and the US, but by and large they were too late. Despite their decisive actions, the virus couldn’t be contained and was spreading fast, especially in poorer communities who couldn’t self-isolate as easily.
Because richer nations started to cut their humanitarian- and development aid budgets drastically, the fear grew that the number of preventable deaths caused by these cuts would outnumber the number of corona-related deaths by a multitude very soon. In the current environment of unprecedented national economic rescue packages, the LDCs (least developed countries) – home to some 900m people – were left to their own fates.
10 months after: Coming face-to-face with the ‘mother-in-law of all pandemics’
In February 2021, a battered world still trying to recover from COVID-19, was almost completely knocked-out by a virus that made Covid-19 look like a walk in the park – the so-called ‘mother-in-law of all pandemics’.
Aysha Aktar coined this term in her now famous TED-talk, held in 2014, titled “Do animals hold the key to your health?”. She used the term ‘mother-in-law’ in reference to the Spanish flu from 1918 that was considered the ‘mother of all pandemics’.
Here’s a short excerpt from her talk:
“Regardless of how deadly it was, the mortality rate of the 1918 influenza virus was still less than 5%. Now, what do you think is going to happen when a bird flu that kills 50% of people combines with a swine flu that spreads fast. Because of factory farms, it’s just a matter of time before a new virus emerges that has the right combination to be both deadly, and contagious. And this time, we’re going to find us face to face with the ‘mother in law of all pandemics’.”
During this time, the public mindset around factory-farming and wildlife trade had completely shifted – from relative indifference to complete opposition. People couldn’t understand why their leaders had not acted given the strong warnings from the WHO and other agencies, and faced with this failure, quite a few governments had – or decided – to resign.
The WHO once again put out an impassioned call to the world to ban all forms of non-therapeutic use of antibiotics in livestock farming, as well as all wildlife trade. This time the leaders and parliaments listened – by the end of 2020, all but a few nations had adopted such laws. Most of them also came with new restrictions on how much space each livestock animal must have, how many animals could be held in one room as well as what they could be fed. Worldwide less than 5% of existing operations met these standards.
“The news sent shockwaves throughout the world, especially because it was not known if the virus was already spreading or if it could still be contained.“
That was when the unthinkable occurred: During one of these inspections, on January 30th to be precise, the ‘mother-in-law of all pandemics’ was discovered in an employee of a piggery. It appeared that a pig got infected with two different types of virus at the same time, which lead to the virus trading genes (similarly to the H1N1 swine flu, combining bird, pig, and human viruses). This gene-swapping led to the creation of a virus that had the virulence of a bird flu and the everyone-is-getting-it contagiousness of the common cold – so exactly what Aysha predicted back in 2014.
The authorities immediately quarantined the farm and all employees. The news sent shockwaves throughout the world, especially because it was not known if the virus was already spreading or if it could still be contained. The timidly recovering global stock markets crashed, while panic and fear spread once again.
Luckily the ‘mother-in-law’ never did spread – in fact, it never left that one farm, thanks to the immediate containment and a lot of luck. But this discovery was the death blow for the factory farm industry. Having just dodged THE bullet of the century, more and more people decided it was time to change their eating habits, and nearly all public institutions were on board as well.
10 years later: How nature returned
We’ve come a long way since then: The most recent WHO numbers state that as of January 2030, 95% of people around the world eat entirely plant-based, while 5% eat animal products between 1 and 5 times per month.
One of the most heart-warming stories of the last 10 years is how this shift led to the great return of wildlife. The following graph shows biomass of each mammal-category (wildlife, livestock animals, humans) measured in megatons (Mt):
- By 2020, the picture had changed dramatically – wild mammals had been decimated and reduced by more than 80% to a fraction of their previous number, making up only 4% of all mammals. Livestock represented a whopping 60%, and humans 36%. Overall mammal-biomass had quadrupled
- The discovery of the super-virus in early 2021 resulted in the sharp drop in livestock (from 100 to 30 Mt, or -70%) and then a continued gradual decline, to only 1% today.
- The beautiful story of this graph is the return of nature. Especially the sharp increase of wildlife in 2022, from 9 to 20 Mt (+122%) and then the gradual increase until 34 Mt today, which is almost as much as in the pre-human period. It shows how fast nature can regenerate.
What’s also interesting to consider is the 41% drop in overall mammal biomass, between 2020 and 2030. We know now that the 167 Mt in 2020 were simply not sustainable. Now, with the ‘burden’ of livestock removed, we can sustain a larger number of humans completely within the planetary boundaries.
Remember the ecological crisis humanity was dealing with in 2020? The one that was threatening millions of livelihoods as well as social unrest and major wars due to rapid climate change and extreme weather events?
Well, it turns out that the shift in food choices not only allowed nature to return, but also solved these problems almost by itself.
The shift away from animal agriculture cut down the required farmland by around 75% – an area equivalent to the US, China, EU and Australia combined.
But things would get even better:
The shift away from animal agriculture cut down the required farmland by around 75% – an area equivalent to the US, China, EU and Australia combined. This land was used for ‘rewilding’, and the now protected wildlife returned and flourished once again all over the world. Humans didn’t have to compete with wild animals for land anymore and national parks started to appear all over the world again.
Last but not least, demand for fish also collapsed as humans redefined their relationship to nature and more and more healthy meat alternatives began to flood the markets. Even the most optimistic marine biologists were amazed at how fast our oceans recovered once the large fishing fleets and fish farms ceased to exist.
The end of global pandemics?
Does that mean that nowadays a global pandemic is impossible? No, a certain risk remains, as only 75% of emerging infectious diseases are zoonotic in nature (i.e. spread from non-human animals to humans) and zoonotic diseases are still possible as humans still interact with animals. However, this risk has shifted from ‘very high’ in 2020 to ‘very low’ nowadays since the exploitation of animals by humans has by and large been eradicated. The ‘2 ticking timebombs’ have been defused.
Thanks to the great rewilding of so many places and the ~40% reduction in overall mammal biomass, there is now also a lot less pressure on the system overall.
Last but not least: Our new-found collaborative and respectful relationship with nature and non-human animals has not only benefited our public health, the planet and the billions of livestock animals, but it also seems that we as a species are doing better, both physically and mentally. Lifestyle diseases such as obesity and heart diseases are also on the decline. In a recent poll conducted by the WHO, 90% of respondents from around the world stated that their quality of life had significantly improved since 2020, with 80% of respondents attributing this positive development to the way they interact with nature.
Knowing what we know now, it’s interesting to consider that 10 years ago, most people and governments were trying to ‘fight the virus’ and ‘get back’ to the situation outlined at the beginning of the article, as fast as possible. Luckily something wiser and more powerful than humanity led us on a different path.
And here we are. Imagine for moment, that you could travel back in time to March 30th 2020, and talk to your ‘2020-version’. What would you tell her/him?
Updated list of articles addressing the link between pandemics and our food choices/systems:
- The Guardian, “We have to wake up: factory farms are breeding grounds for pandemis”, by Jonathan Safran Foer and aaron S Gross, 20th April 2020
- The Guardian, “Is factory farming to blame for coronavirus?”, by Laura Spinney, 28th March 2020
- National Review, “China’s Wet Markets, America’s Factory Farming”, by Matthew Scully, 9th April 2020
- Scientific American, “One Root Cause of Pandemics Few People Think About”, by Paul Shapiro, 24th March 2020
- The Nation, “Think Exotic Animals Are to Blame for the Coronavirus? Think Again.” by Sonia Shah, February 18th 2020
- Wired, “Modernizing Meat Production Will Help Us Avoid Pandemics”, by Liz Specht, 3rd March 2020
- Project Syndicate, “The Two Dark Sides of COVID 19”, by Peter Singer, Paola Cavalieri, 2nd March 2020
- Euronews, “The best way to prevent future pandemics like coronavirus? Stop eating meat and go vegan ¦ View”, by Elisa Allen, 2nd April 2020
- Plant Based News, “Coronavirus: We Need To Stop Factory Farming As Well As Wet Markets”, by Dr. Justine Butler, 6th April 2020
- Los Angeles Times,”Op-Ed: COVID-19 shows that what we’re doing to animals is killing us, too”, by Viveca Morris, 2nd April 2020
- Local Futures, “Origin of Covid-19: industrial livestock?”, by Grain, 7th April 2020
- Sentient Media, “To Reduce the Risk of Pandemics, We Must Ban Factory Farms Now”, by Nico Stubler & Jeff Sebo
1. Our World In Data, “Meat and Dairy Production”, by Hannah Ritchie and Max Roser, published in August 2017, last revision in November 2019
2. Sentience Institute, “Global Farmed & Factory Farmed Animals Estimates”, by Kelly Witwicki, last updated February 21 2019
3. Medium, “Gradually, then suddenly – four concepts that may help us think clearly about the coronavirus epidemic”, by Danny Bürkli, updated March 13 2020
4. World Economic Forum, “Coronavirus is coming for the world’s poor. Here are six ways to help”, by Duncan Maru and Sabitri Sapkota, 23 March 2020
5. TEDxFoggyBottom, “Do animals hold the key to your health?”, by Aysha Akhtar, 2nd April 2014
6. The Guardian, “Avoid meat and dairy is ‘single biggest way’ to reduce your impact on Earth”, by Damian Carrington, 31st may 2018
7. US national Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health, “Risk factors for human disease emergence”, by Taylor LH, Latham SM, Woolhouse ME, Juley 29th 2001
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Oceaneers is a community-driven initiative created by two ocean lovers who wanted to inspire others to see that the biggest positive impact they could make to ocean sustainability was to change their food choices.
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