Why it's time to end our exploitation of nonhuman animals

Why it's time to end our exploitation of nonhuman animals
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In the cacophony of reports and commentary on the disaster and discord produced by Covid-19, discussion of human treatment of nonhuman animals and its link to the pandemic remains largely nonexistent. In reality, the current catastrophe is but the latest of a long series of tragedies resulting from nonhuman animal exploitation.


When people began capturing and breeding nonhuman animals approximately 10,000 years ago in Eurasia, the confinement and crowding of these other animals led to the development of deadly diseases that infected humans. From smallpox to tuberculous to the measles, such zoonotic diseases caused by animal mistreatment have been calamitous over millennia. Moreover, large scale human violence and warfare was both enabled and promoted by nonhuman animal exploitation. Horses came to be used as instruments of warfare, and cows, pigs, sheep and other nonhuman animals were exploited as rations, allowing the formation of militaristic, nomadic societies that launched constant invasions in search of fresh grazing land and water. As a result, countless people who did not die from these zoonotic diseases died violent deaths at the hands of societies led by the likes of Attila the Hun to Chinggis Khan.

The exploitation of nonhuman animals for the past ten thousand years has been disastrous for human society.

In the 15th century, this deadly system steeped in animal exploitation was unleashed on the rest of the world through European colonization. Even with thousands of years of experience of warfare waged from the backs of horses, the Europeans could never have subdued the resistance of indigenous peoples were it not for the deadly viruses they brought with them, zoonotic diseases that brought unimaginable trauma while decimating populations of indigenous peoples in the Americas and throughout much of the world. A great deal of the land stolen by European colonizers was then used to expand the profitable practice of ranching, an enterprise that led to the continual, violent expropriation of land around the world for increasing numbers of cows and sheep and other nonhuman animals.

The numbers of nonhuman animals exploited as food on the expropriated lands soared and in the early 20th century the virus underlying the catastrophic influenza pandemic of 1918, likely first originating among confined pigs, resulted in an estimated 50 million deaths around the world before settling into the seasonal flu. The exploitation of chickens, ducks, geese and other birds for food likely contributed to the  H2N2 virus of 1957, that led to a million deaths; and the 1968 H3N2 influenza virus that also caused roughly one million deaths. In 2002 the coronavirus SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome), again linked to the consumption of nonhuman animals as food, killed hundreds, while in 2009 the H1N1 influenza virus, believed to have originated in factory farms for pigs on North Carolina, resulted to as many as 500,000 deaths worldwide. In 2012 exploitation of other animals led to the rise of the coronavirus MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome) which also killed hundreds, and the present pandemic of the coronavirus Covid-19, again linked to the use of nonhuman animals as food, is now wreaking havoc across the globe.  With tens of billions of nonhuman animals either hunted or farmed in the world’s current world system of food production, future pandemics are all but certain.

If this were not enough reason for seriously challenging the use of other animals as food, the practice is the primary driver of imminent ecological collapse. The practice is a – some scientists argue the – leading cause of the climate emergency. And it is the primary cause of water pollution, ocean destruction, topsoil depletion and the squandering of the earth’s remaining supply of fresh water. Countless indigenous peoples throughout the world remain marginalized while much of their stolen land continues to be used for ranching or feed crop production. While one billion of the world’s human population currently does not have enough food, and thousands of children die daily from conditions related to malnutrition, 70 percent of the world’s agricultural land is used to produce nonhuman animal products, disproportionately for the more affluent. As the climate emergency advances future food shortages are inevitable, and powerful countries around the world are preparing for the race for what is left.

The exploitation of nonhuman animals for the past ten thousand years has been disastrous for human society. At this tragic moment in history, circumstances are crying out for policies and legislation that will rapidly promote the development of a global, plant-based food system.

David Nibert, former community activist and tenants’ rights organizer, is Professor of Sociology at Wittenberg University.

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