The global outbreak of COVID-19 has caused the deaths of almost 100 Australians and many more people around the world. It has changed the way we live, the way we work and the way we interact with each other. The coronavirus is suspected to have come from wet markets, where animals are held in filthy and stressful conditions. But it is not the first zoonotic disease to come from animals forced to live in filthy conditions. According to the United States of America Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately 75 per cent of new and emerging infectious diseases come from animals. This should come as no surprise to us—think of bird flu, mad cow disease, severe acute respiratory disease, swine flu and Middle East respiratory syndrome. Every major outbreak over the past 50 years has been a zoonotic disease caused by the confinement and consumption of animals. It hardly seems a coincidence that "coronavirus" is an anagram of "carnivorous".
Before we point the finger of blame overseas, we need to take a serious look in our own backyard. In Australia we conduct the largest land-based slaughter of wildlife in the world—the commercial kangaroo meat industry. Every day wild kangaroos are shot in the remote bushland, decapitated, and dragged onto the back of trucks and transported up to eight hours before being refrigerated. Joeys are bludgeoned to death or left to starve. This industry has been linked to serious diseases like toxoplasmosis and salmonella. The risk does not end with Australia's wildlife trade. Animal agribusiness operations all over the country have thousands of animals living in cramped confinement and squalor. Pigs, chickens, ducks, turkeys and other animals are often forced to live in their own waste and the built-up excrement from thousands of other animals. In these conditions, they become the perfect vectors for disease.
For years scientists have warned that the animal agribusiness industry is a breeding ground for new antibiotic-resistant "superbugs". The living environments for animals at animal agribusiness facilities are so revolting that these animals are regularly fed antibiotics just to keep them alive. This regular antibiotic use can cause superbugs. It also causes human antibiotic resistance. While viruses like COVID-19 cannot be treated with antibiotics, there are many health complications that can be treated with them, but our increased use in animal agribusiness and secondary consumption from eating animal flesh is building a resistance to this treatment and risking human health. With those kinds of putrid conditions it is no wonder we have seen clusters of the coronavirus at a meatworks in Victoria, as well as similar facilities in the United States, Canada, Spain and Ireland.
Now more than ever we need to recognise that the disrespectful treatment of animals has consequences. There is no need to continue to support outdated, cruel, environmentally disastrous and human health risking animal agribusiness practices. The future of food is plant based. As Australia isone of the fastest growing markets for plant-based proteins, we have the unique opportunity to be at the forefront of this change.