Yonatan Neril
Founder and director of the Interfaith Center for Sustainable Development

Coronavirus and What We Eat

Is there something about the way humanity is living that is bringing this pandemic upon us? This may be a difficult question to hear, in light of all of the suffering that many people are going through at the current time. But if we don’t look deeper at what is going on, and address the problem at its roots, then it is likely to repeat itself by emerging again from the same roots. And we certainly don’t want to have to go through this in another five or 10 years.

Pangolins, a scaly ant-eating mammal, were most likely the intermediate host of the coronavirus, according to recent research at South China Agricultural University, and reported on in China’s official Xinhua News Agency. The study found that the sequence of a pangolin coronavirus strain “was 99 percent identical to that of infected people in the recent coronavirus outbreak.”  COVID-19 likely emerged from the Wuhan wildlife market, where pangolins and many other animals were sold. As an article in the Israeli newspaper Mekor Rishon noted, what happens in Chinese wildlife markets is an international problem.

A number of years ago, I went to a wildlife market in Hong Kong. I was astonished to see birds, fish, and mammals, all in small cages.  Little did I know that Hong Kong “accounted for more pangolin seizures than any country, according to a report published by the Hong Kong Wildlife Trade Working Group. Between 2013 and 2017, Hong Kong seized 43 metric tons of pangolin scales and carcasses — representing tens of thousands of animals — in shipments arriving from six countries, principally Cameroon and Nigeria,” as the New York Times wrote.  “Pangolins are believed to be the most frequently illegally trafficked mammal in the world. The International Union for Conservation of Nature has declared all eight species as ‘threatened with extinction’ since 2014,” as the New York Times reported.

The bigger issue here goes beyond trapping bats, eating pangolins and trading them in wildlife markets. We are seeing a pattern here: SARS, MERS, Swine flu, bird flu, Mad Cow disease. These are viruses that transfer to people from animals that we control, trap or farm. Saudi control of camels spread MERS, with camels as the intermediate species between bats and people. In past year, swine fever caused the death or slaughter of hundreds of millions of pigs— likely one quarter of the world’s pig population. China suffered the worst losses.

But the virus-to-animal-to-people crisis we are facing goes well beyond China, since per capita consumption of meat in China is about half of that in the U.S. and Australia. The deeper issue centers on a common pattern of behavior among people: excessive domination and frequent consumption of animals. This involves chickens, cows, and pigs, and our consumption of meat, dairy, and eggs.  British control of cattle spread mad cow disease. Here in Israel, Israelis are the fifth highest per capita consumers of meat, and have the highest per capita poultry production emissions. The World Economic Forum notes that an estimated 50 billion chickens alone are slaughtered for food every year. While climate change reveals the downside of our extraction and use of fossil fuels, coronavirus reveals a downside of our exploitation and consumption of animals.

Some people think we can put tens of billions of animals in cramped conditions in industrial warehouses, while people can be above and separate from nature and insulated from the fate of animals. Nothing could be further from the truth. The health of people, animals, and nature is all connected. This principle is known as ‘One Health.’ When animals suffer, we suffer. When animals are healthy, we can be healthy.

There is also a spiritual dimension to how we treat animals. The Psalmist wrote, “God is good to all, and God’s compassion is on all His creatures.” According to Rabbi Aha, when God created Adam, the first human being, God brought before him all the animals He created and asked, what are their names? Adam then proceeded to him names to all of the animals. This indicates that God wanted Adam to be in positive relationship with them (Midrash Genesis Raba 17:4). In the first chapter of Genesis, the Bible describes God creating animals with souls. If we remember this, it will be more difficult to maintain a system that keeps tens of billions of them in cages for our consumption.

The coronavirus is messaging to us that we need to change our ways. Masks only address the surface issue. To prevent this from happening again, we can start by changing what we put in our mouths.

About the Author
Rabbi Yonatan Neril founded and directs The Interfaith Center for Sustainable Development and its Jewish Eco Seminars branch. Raised in California, Yonatan completed an M.A. and B.A. from Stanford University with a global environmental focus , and received rabbinical ordination in Israel. He speaks internationally on religion and the environment, and co-organized twelve interfaith environmental conferences in Israel and the U.S. He is the lead author and general editor of three books on Jewish environmental ethics, including Eco Bible, a bestseller in several Amazon Kindle categories. He lives with his wife, Shana and their two children in Jerusalem.
Related Topics
Related Posts