2021 Predictions: It starts with the McPlant
McDonald’s, with its ubiquitous golden arches, is the world’s largest fast-food chain and has served billions upon billions upon billions of hamburgers since opening its first restaurant in 1955. At long last, McDonald’s will join Burger King, Hardee’s, White Castle, and Carl’s Jr in offering a plant-based burger. The public has spoken, and McDonald’s has finally listened. In a statement provided to USA Today, president of McDonald’s International said: “McPlant is crafted exclusively for McDonald’s, by McDonald’s. In the future, McPlant could extend across a line of plant-based products including burgers, chicken-substitutes and breakfast sandwiches.” The reason switching to plant-based meats, milks, and eggs are so important has to do preventing the next pandemic.
As devastating as COVID-19 has been, it may just be a dress rehearsal for an even greater threat waiting in the wings…of chickens. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the leading candidate for the next pandemic is a bird flu virus known as H7N9, which is a hundred times deadlier than COVID-19. Instead of 1 in 250 cases dying, H7N9 has killed 40 percent of people it infects. The last time a bird flu virus jumped directly to humans and caused a pandemic, it triggered the deadliest plague in human history—the 1918 pandemic that killed 50 million people. That had a 2 percent death rate. What if we had a pandemic infecting billions where the chance of dying was closer to a flip of a coin?
But the good news is we can do something about it! Just as eliminating the exotic animal trade and live animal markets may go a long way toward preventing the next coronavirus pandemic, reforming the way we raise domestic animals for food may help forestall the next killer flu. In this new age of emerging diseases, there are now billions of feathered and curly-tailed test-tubes overcrowded and intensively confined in filthy factory farms for viruses to incubate and mutate within. Today’s animal agricultural practices have given viruses billions more spins at pandemic roulette. We may be one bushmeat meal away from the next HIV, one pangolin plate away from the next killer coronavirus, and one factory farm away from the next deadly flu.
How can we stop the emergence of pandemic viruses in the first place? Whenever possible, treat the cause.
The largest and oldest association of public health professionals in the world, the American Public Health Association, has called for a moratorium on factory farming for nearly two decades. Its journal published an editorial entitled “The Chickens Come Home to Roost” that went beyond calling for a deintensification of the pork and poultry industries:
“It is curious, therefore, given the pandemic threat, 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. Such a change, if sufficiently adopted or imposed, could still reduce the chances of the much-feared influenza epidemic. It would be even more likely to prevent unknown future diseases that, in the absence of this change, may result from farming animals intensively and killing them for food. Yet humanity doesn’t even consider this option.”
Factory farms are a public health menace. We don’t tend to shore up the levees until after disaster strikes, but the bottom line is that it’s not worth risking the lives of millions of people for the sake of cheaper chicken and pork.
A recent Neuroepidemiology editorial by the editor-in-chief entitled “What the COVID-19 Crisis Is Telling Humanity” concluded: “Intensive confinement of animals in factory farm operations should be discontinued worldwide for the sake of animals, humans, and the environment, and we should rapidly evolve to eating other forms of protein that are safer for humans, including plant-based meat alternatives and cultured meat (produced by culturing animal cells).” Singapore just became to first country to approve cultivated meat. Hopefully in 2021 we’ll see these trends continue to take off!