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Opinion Don’t want to ditch meat for your health? Do it to avoid pandemics

Paul Shapiro is the author of Clean Meat: How Growing Meat Without Animals Will Revolutionize Dinner and the World.

As African swine fever decimates China’s pork industry, Canada has issued strict new rules on what livestock can be fed. But still, fears linger: Are regulations, serving as consumers’ last line of defence, strong enough to minimize the risk to public health? When humanity crams vast numbers of animals together in overcrowded and often unsanitary conditions, are outbreaks of major diseases just an occupational hazard?

Canada’s feed restrictions are important for safety, of course, but there are likely more fundamental changes needed to reduce the risk not only of animal disease outbreaks such as African swine fever, but also diseases that could jump from farm animals to humans, sparking a pandemic. One need look no further than the avian influenza virus that caused the 1918 Spanish flu outbreak, taking 50 million human lives, to know that the threat posed by a pandemic is all too real.

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Yet few people seem to be talking about ways to reduce our reliance on farm animals, given the threat posed to society by the meat industry’s confinement of billions of these animals. Few people, that is, outside of the public-health community; in fact, the editorial board of the American Journal of Public Health wrote on the topic more than a decade ago. These health experts openly worried about a factory-farm induced pandemic, observing that, “it is curious, therefore, that changing the way humans treat animals – most basically, ceasing to eat them or, at the very least, radically limiting the quantity of them that are eaten – is largely off the radar as a significant preventive measure.”

Taking their advice of raising fewer animals could reduce pandemic risk, but that’d hardly be the only benefit. Enjoying a more plant-based diet also happens to be the advice of Canada’s new dietary guidelines, primarily to improve public health.

The good news is that more and more Canadians are enjoying meat-free meals, and restaurants are scrambling to keep up with demand, with fast-food restaurants such as A&W often running out of the plant-based Beyond Meat Burger, as one example. And interestingly enough, the survey results show that people from Ontario, the country’s most populous province, are the most likely to be cutting back on their meat habit.

In addition to the public-health benefits of eating more plants and fewer animals, people are increasingly concerned about the effects of climate change, which the United Nations recently warned may wreak even more havoc in the near future. In Canada, that likely means more drought in the Prairies and more damaging storms in the Maritimes. As noted by the UN, however, animal agriculture is a leading cause of greenhouse gas emissions, contributing about 15 per cent of them – more than all forms of transportation combined. In other words, if we’re serious about cooling the climate, what’s better for us is also better for the planet.

And then, of course, there’s the simple fact that plant-based meals just taste really good. Gone are the days when not eating meat meant subsisting on tofu, though tofu’s actually come a long way, too. Now those of us who want to have our meat and eat it, too, can feast on Gardein chicken-free fingers and Impossible Burgers, enjoying the taste of meat without so many of its downsides. Even Maple Leaf Foods, Canada’s largest meat producer, has diversified, recently acquiring the plant-based meat brands Field Roast and Lightlife.

This trend toward plants simply can’t happen fast enough. After all, the planet isn’t getting any bigger, but humanity’s footprint on it is, heightening the risk of mass pandemics.

There’s still a long way to go before we embrace a diet that better protects both planetary and public health. But there are some signs in Canada that things may be moving in the right direction. After all, a win-win solution is all too rare, and the shift toward eating more plants and less meat fits that bill: tackling major problems that loom for our species – and in a tasty way, to boot.

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