If the first six months of COVID-19 are teaching us anything, it's what we value most and truly can't live without - our health.
Like all of us, I’m keeping watch over my three kids who are cautiously emerging from lockdown as life re-emerges from the darkness of these last few months. I’m checking on my parents regularly, and also my mother-in-law, who lives alone in rural England. Closer to home, I’m acutely conscious of friends who have been ill or lost their jobs, and families forced apart with the border closure. It is a truly gruelling time, leaving nobody untouched.
The daily headlines have spared us nothing in terms of laying out the deadly toll it is taking on our lives. However, a new and troubling facet to the virus is now emerging with the recent spate of reports about how COVID-19 might be impacting our food security.
Beijing Salmon Scare - It's Bigger than Salmon
You will probably have read articles like this in the South China Morning Post, citing fears that frozen European salmon sold at a Beijing wet market may have been the trigger for a large COVID-19 outbreak in China.
So serious was this, it has resulted in a full-scale Beijing lockdown as businesses and schools are once again closed, and millions tested. Unnerving stuff, and that’s with no evidence proving a link between contaminated salmon and the virus which appears to have been caused by an already infected market worker.
Within a week, the same paper announced a ban on German pork products after 650 of the 1000 meat factory workers tested positive for the virus (so far, there are 20,000 cases of infected meat factory workers in the US alone). More animal products and factories from the UK, Brazil and the US have since joined the prohibited list.
Whether the transmission risk is proven or not, this is a salutary warning which highlights a much bigger problem in respect of animal-born viruses. Infected bats in a Chinese wet market may seem random and isolated, but for decades, food industry experts have warned us of exactly this kind of coronavirus emerging from large scale factory farms; they pose a real and imminent threat which may, by all accounts, make COVID-19 look paltry by comparison.
“Experts from both the UN and the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) have pinpointed animals or food of animal origin as a starting point for emerging diseases, such as Covid-19,….cautioned that replacing Asia’s open-air slaughter markets with factory farming for meat would create similarly dangerous conditions for highly virulent flu strains to breed.”
So why is it that animals are so prone to virulent infections like Coronavirus? It isn't actually the animals themselves, it's the terrible factory farm conditions in which they are raised. They have a singular purpose - to produce as many animal products in as little time as possible, as cheaply as possible, using the least space possible. They are Ground Zero in the animal virus chain, the perfect deadly setting for the rampant incubation and spread of disease; cramped, filthy spaces where animal welfare means nothing.
What do the Experts Say?
Dr. Jane Goodall didn't mince her words in identifying the true cause of COVID-19; “We have brought this on ourselves because of our absolute disrespect for animals and the environment,” she said.
The leading food scientist and nutritionist, Dr. Michael Gregor takes it a step further by stating the impact of another zoonotic virus actually has the potential to be 100 times worse than COVID-19.
"If you actually want to create a global pandemic, then build factory farms."
- Dr Michael Gregor
I’ve written about the conditions in factory farms that Dr Gregor describes many times, having visited a number of these farms when I was researching my first suppliers almost a decade ago. Even now, I cannot forget the pungent smells, the awful sounds and that undeniable knowledge that these places do not belong anywhere on our planet. If you have the appetite, watch even a few seconds of this short video, which shows you what I'm referring to better than any words I can find. The overwhelming majority of farmed animals are kept in dark, unsanitary, enormous, overcrowded sheds, which stresses their immune systems. Worse, they are bred primarily for rapid growth and maximum output, not robustness, and their genetic similarity makes them especially likely to transmit a disease to one another. As if this picture isn't bad enough, we cannot ignore the overuse of antibiotics which creates a separate but equally threatening public health risk. The so-called benefit is cheap food, but the real cost is a calamitous food system that is putting everyone’s health at risk.
This is one of the reasons I set up Sasha’s Fine Foods. For the safety of my own family, I wanted to know that what we were eating was healthy, raised humanely and with as little damage to the environment as possible.
For the first time, we're seeing a really public discussion on the irrefutable connection between zoonotic diseases like COVID-19 and our unsustainable dependence on factory farming. This gives me hope that change will happen. It has to.
What can we do in the meantime? An easy way is to buy sustainably farmed fish, poultry and meat if it's possible. Mt. Cook Alpine Salmon may not be as cheap as supermarket alternatives but it's infinitely safer and healthier. It also supports the farmers that are doing things the right way, which helps them grow. Look out for products with an official recognition from trusted authorities like Seafood Watch (which identified Mt Cook Alpine Salmon as one of the best in the world). There are lots of brilliant, sustainably farmed products available in the world and I will, of course, continue to offer the best selection I can, whether it's chicken or pork, fish or beef.
As a final tonic, I leave with you this lovely clip from my visit to Mt. Cook which for me, embodies the change we now urgently need to see right across the food industry; it's happening in many sustainable fish farms and I believe it will happen in the way we farm animals too.