[A version of this article was written in 2004 in the wake of three pandemics which rocked the world – the mad cow disease, the avian flu and SARS.]
The Maharashtra government has now implemented a beef ban and also banned slaughter of cows and the male progeny of the cow. This law which was in force in Karnataka during the BJP rule has since been rolled back by the Congress.
India is in the grip of swine flu and it does not seem as if we have the virus under control and we are miles away from eliminating it. Monkey flu, avian flu, swine flu…the animal world is hitting back at humans and hitting back hard. Maybe the time has come to take a good hard look at what the meat industry is doing to the country.
So long as meat eating was confined to certain days of the year among a small section of people, the country had never heard of avian, swine or monkey flu. But meat production in India has become a vast industry and meat eating has become a fad, and like speaking English, a status symbol. And meat eaters want to eat the meat of birds and animals not native to this country and not native to the locality in which they live. A global phenomenon causes global pandemics and a national phenomenon causes a national pandemic. The increase in meat production, meat consumption and its industry status has given the country the dubious distinction of being a two-day ahimsa country.
The avian flu, SARS and earlier, the mad cow disease have all been caused by the human fad for eating animal corpses and carcasses. This is the basic truth, not expressed, not acknowledged, but the only truth that can lead the world back to sanity. All three diseases assumed trans-continental pandemic proportions because this fast-growing, corpse-eating fad is encouraged by a profiteering international trade and industry in the raising, slaughtering and eating of animals and birds. If vultures, crows and other animals and birds are nature’s scavengers who restore balance and hygiene in nature, then the human scavengers who eat animal corpses are consensual partners in this meat-making industry. The meat-eating populace however, unlike nature’s scavengers, participate knowingly in despoiling the environment causing serious imbalances in nature. These persons are also criminally guilty of either actively violating some of nature’s most basic laws of life or condoning it.
The Indian visual media subjected its viewers to the comic spectacle of film personalities in Mumbai and Chennai advocating the eating of chicken without fear of avian flu. Celebrity endorsement for eating the flesh of dead birds? “Too many lives are dependent on this business”, said one famous Hindi film personality. “We have to do our bit to see that their business is not affected by the bird flu scare”.
Fair enough. But have these film artists studied the issue in any detail or depth before endorsing this fad? And more to the point, I did not see any of them taking up the cause of the small farmer or the small manufacturer when the WTO disrupted their lives and rendered them jobless and struggling to survive. So why endorse the eating of chicken and why take up the cause of the chicken industry? It may of course have nothing to do with the fact that all American food-peddlers in India like Mcdonald’s, Kentucky Fried Chicken and Pizza Hut, and their Indian imitators here depend solely on chicken and other meat for their business or that there is big money involved here.
Bollywood actors Farhan Akhtar, Ayushmann Khurrana, Arjun Kapoor, Raveena Tandon, Radhika Apte, Nimrat Kaur, Uday Chopra and Vir Das were some of the celebrities who opposed and mocked the ban on beef with sarcastic and witty tweets punning on the word ‘beef’.
Farhan Akhtar: “So now in Maharashtra you can have a beef with someone, but you can’t have beef with someone.”
Ayushmann Khurrana: “Beef faal baad! #kaminey”
“Gau maata. Humein kuch nahi aata! #beefban”
Raveena Tandon: “My only take on beef issue that it should not be enforced, it should be optional… To eat or not to eat, is a personal choice (sic).”
Uday Chopra: “Beef gets banned…on the plus side, less red meat in our diet is a good thing…on the not so plus side…another step towards a theocratic state”
Vishal Dadlani: “It’d be amazing, if M’tra govt. showed the same urgency in tending to real problems such as water & power, as they have for the #BeefBan”
Nimrat Kaur: “No beef. Now no jokes on this please.”
Anubhav Sinha: “”Re Meat na mila re mann ka” Song from Abhiman in a different light today. #BeefBan”
Vir Das: “I’ve got a beef with this whole no beef thing.”
“Dear Maharashtra Govt, such favouritism! You just lost the entire chicken and goat vote bank.”
Aarti Chabria: “#BeefBan ? Well i dont eat beef anyway.. But seriously
Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) is known better by its more colloquial name, ‘mad cow disease’. Only there was nothing mad about the cow although there is little doubt about the insanity of humans who caused it to happen in the first place.
BSE is a degenerative neurological disease (DND) which afflicts cows and calves. DND affects deer and elk, sheep and humans too; only it goes by different names in different species. In deer and elk it is called Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD), in sheep it is called Scrapie and humans suffer from at least three DND that I personally know of.
Probably there are more – Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease or CJD. Humans who had eaten beef from a BSE afflicted cow have been killed or are terminally ill with a variant form of CJD. What is important to know is that while Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s may occur ‘naturally’ in humans, BSE or VCJD do not occur spontaneously or naturally in cows and humans. They can only be induced by the eating of contaminated meat. Cows and cattle were created to be herbivorous. Which means in sane societies, cows would be sent to graze grass, would be fed grains, hay, leaves and fodder. Among humans, in sane civilizations, pregnant women who would soon be nursing their new-born infants, are placed under strict dietary regulations and even in western societies doctors advise a no-smoking, no-alcohol way of life in pregnant women so that the milk which the new-born is fed with is safe and contains the appropriate nutrients. Ditto with cows and buffaloes whose milk is consumed by calves and humans. It makes sense therefore to feed cows whose milk is diverted to grocery stores for human consumption, the kind of food that is in keeping with its nature.
Because the Indian civilization considered the act of eating and feeding a sacred religious act, and because food is intrinsically sacred, what we eat and what we feed others is in the nature of an immense responsibility. Eating the right food is an essential part of a good upbringing and an important aspect of our culture. The first law of nature that was broken in this continuing nightmare of pandemics was that cows were fed meat in the UK, where the BSE first manifested itself. The entire industry of raising, slaughtering, eating and exporting animals and their meat runs to more than a hundred billion dollars in the US alone. The retail equivalent value of the US beef industry in the US for the year 2003 is an estimated $70 billion while the value of the cattle and calf production is valued at $27 billion. The value of the export of US beef in 2003 is an estimated $3.3 billion with Japan, Mexico, South Korea and Canada being the biggest importers of US beef. This is big business, big money. The global figures of this corpse-eating industry must be mind-boggling.
When BSE broke out in Britain in 1987, there was no knowledge or awareness of what caused BSE, and what would be the impact of BSE on humans. British cattle owners feed their cows what is called meat and bone meal (MBM) from sheep. The idea behind feeding cows and calves meat and bones instead of the normal vegetarian greens and grains is to increase the body weight of the animals so as to yield more mass of beef upon slaughter. This is called commercial carcass weight of a cow or a calf. In India while we still have not started to feed our cows and cattle MBM with an eye on the benefits of slaughter, (and if they are, then it is not publicly known) we do something equally perverse and demoniac to chickens. Some poultry farmers do not let the chicken sleep by day or night. Bright lights shine down on the sheds to keep the chicken and chicks awake so that they peck grains all the time. This unhealthy eating spree increases their body weight in an unnaturally short period of time. Many chicks die of heart failure. This terrible and ugly truth is never told and those who thoughtlessly eat chicken as a fad or as an unhealthy dietary habit do not care to know, or simply do not care.
Similarly, the ugly truth about feeding cows and calves meat and bones would never have come out in the open if it were not for the outbreak of BSE. The meat and bones of even sheep afflicted by scrapie were converted to MBM for cows and calves. BSE in Britain, where it first manifested itself and assumed pandemic proportions, must have been caused by one of the two reasons: either that there were no cases of scrapie in the sheep in Britain until the 1980s or that British farmers did not start the demoniac practice of feeding their cows MBM until the 1980s. In the case of the former, we still do not know if scrapie occurs naturally in sheep or if it happened in so widespread a manner in the 1980s because some other laws of nature were violated or broken. If it is the latter, then the farmers who knew that their sheep could be afflicted by scrapie, nevertheless did not know of the terrible consequences of feeding cows MBM from scrapie-afflicted sheep. So there is no way that they could have known about the consequences of humans consuming the beef from BSE cows. Humans consuming contaminated beef were in turn afflicted by vCJD. This demoniac food chain started by humans, as a consequence of the process of natural justice, came back to culminate humans themselves.
SARS resurfaced in China in 2004 and a man affected by the disease confessed to have eaten the meat of a civet cat.
The madness doesn’t end here. In the US where cows and calves are raised just for beef and veal, there is no sanctity in keeping the calf with the mother. In Hindu temples, the temple opens for devotees only after the morning ritual of cow and calf worship and only after the cow and calf duo have sanctified the sanctum sanctorum with their presence. I can live with the fact that outside of India, there is no sanctity attached to cow, much less to the cow and calf. But it is difficult to understand how a culture which associates the theme of Pieta with immense sorrow, can separate the calf from the mother and deny it the life-giving milk from the mother cow.
No fewer than 200,000 cows were slaughtered in the UK alone between 1986-88 when nearly one thousand cows were being reported sick with BSE every week, and over five million cows altogether were slaughtered around the rest of the world to contain the spread of BSE. This bloodbath was so unnecessary considering that BSE is not contagious. Because BSE is not a communicable disease, it neither spreads from cow to cow nor does it spread from cows to humans. Just as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s are not communicable neurological diseases.
BSE afflicts cows and calves only when they are fed infected MBM and they affect humans only when they eat beef from a BSE cow. The milk from a BSE cow is safe and so are the milk products made of milk from BSE cows. But the Americans did not feed their calves with milk. The infant calves were separated from their mothers and fed blood. Infants were fed blood because these infants were intended for slaughter too and because all milk was diverted to the grocery stores and because you had to provide the calf with good nutrients to make for good beef, the Americans fed their calves with blood because blood is rich in protein. If blood were indeed superior to milk as life-giving food for new-born infants, western societies should ask themselves why are they now propagating breast-feeding through the UN and the WHO instead of feeding their human infants blood from their mothers or better still, cow blood or any other blood purchased from off the shelves in supermarkets.
The next pandemic to shake the world was SARS. Nothing can better explain the fact that scientists are still bewildered and without a clue about the origins and the exact nature of the disease than that the description of the disease is its name: severe acute respiratory syndrome. Severe and acute mean the same thing and yet, far from being tautological or redundant, we have retained both severe and acute in the name because these were its most distinctive characteristics. A very severe respiratory disorder. On the surface, no different from pneumonia or influenza with acute cold, high fever, headache and rigor and yet this respiratory disorder, unlike pneumonia, was communicable, was spreading across China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Vietnam, Singapore and other countries of Eastern Asia, and to Europe and North America.
SARS was also a killer. The most severely affected countries were China, Hong-Kong, Taiwan, Vietnam and Singapore – peoples with very similar eating habits. Of the 8422 cases that were reported in 29 countries, the maximum number of fatalities, 908 deaths, occurred in these countries alone. Eight other deaths occurred in the rest of the world.
SARS is a new strain of coronavirus and a coronavirus is different from the general virus because of its ‘unique’ shape. Frantic research in 11 laboratories across the world in the first three months of the year 2003—when the SARS pandemic was at its peak—established that this new strain had its origins in some animal. But until January 2004, scientists around the world refused to tell us how this coronavirus ‘jumped’ from animal to humans. SARS resurfaced in China in 2004 and a man affected by the disease confessed to have eaten the meat of a civet cat. The civet cat is a wild cat and so is a raccoon dog both of which are hosts for this virus and both of which are eaten by the Chinese people.
People of the East and South-East Asian regions are reputed to eat anything that crawls, walks or flies except maybe the rat and the cockroach. The SARS virus or a strain of this virus closely resembling it, is supposed to affect wild animals and wild birds and SARS is reported to have been caused because of the Chinese fad for eating the meat of wild animals and birds which were captured, bred and marketed for slaughter.
Unlike the avian flu, the SARS virus did not jump from animals to humans because of proximity. The virus closely resembling the SARS virus which affects wild animals entered the genes of humans consuming the meat of animals and birds affected by this virus. Inside the human gene, this virus probably came into contact with another virus affecting humans, mutated and assumed new qualities which made it more virulent, communicable by nature and a killer. Thus this animal virus which by nature did not jump from animals to humans, acquired this quality of ‘jumping’ upon mutation and became a communicable pandemic. It became SARS.
Even now, the WHO website does not say categorically that SARS which first occurred in the Guangdong province in South China was a new disease created because humans ate the meat of animals and birds already affected by a virus. The first reported chain of transmission from human to human began on 16 November 2002. This truth of the meat-eating origins of SARS is not explicitly or unambiguously stated. It is for us to delve into the depths of innumerable disease status reports, put two and two together to arrive at this startling truth.
Very little is said either about the role of globalization in the origins and the spread of these new pandemics or about the senseless violation of nature’s laws. Before the advent of railways, eating habits were decided by what was available locally – only those grains, vegetables, fruits, oils, spices and nuts were eaten which were cultivated and transported locally or from nearby villages and towns. Even meat-eaters did not transport animals and birds from any long distance. They ate the meat of those animals and birds which were found or were raised locally, or even in their own homes.
Meat-eating was not a daily event; it was consumed perhaps once or twice a week and on special occasions. This is in sharp contrast to meat-eating as a fad today, as a daily obsession, as an industry. Cows and cattle are now imported and exported across national borders, across seas, across continents. The physiology and the metabolism of cows and cattle, like humans, are defined by the environment into which they are born and this in turn influences the kind of food that they eat. Which is why an Indian looks different from a Chinese who is different from a European who is different from an African. We not only look different, our bodies are different, our internal systems are specific to our environment. We dress differently, eat differently. The common ailments and illnesses to which we are susceptible, and some of the more virulent and communicable diseases are also governed by the environment, our physiology, metabolism and our eating habits. Ditto with cows, buffaloes and cattle. Within India alone, we will find different sub-species of cows, bulls and buffaloes, goats and sheep, in different parts of the country, in different regions of the same state.
When animals for the meat industry are transported live across continents, the dangers of area specific diseases and species and pedigree-specific diseases becoming global are that much greater. Not content with eating the meat of their own animals, corpse-eaters around the world today desire to eat the corpses of animals and birds from other countries. We thus have Canada importing cows from Japan, Japan importing beef from the US and Asian countries like Malaysia importing meat from Europe. Even India tried her hand at importing ostriches from Australia to start ostrich farming in Tamil Nadu, a move that drew sharp protests from local animal rights activists.
Compound this with different climatic conditions, different environments and different feeding patterns and habits of these animals in their home countries and we have several major volatile and variable factors that could trigger new diseases affecting local animals and peoples who may not possess immunity from these diseases. BSE, SARS and now the avian flu have proved this beyond doubts and arguments.
Cows and cattle, unlike migratory animals and birds, are not meant to cross oceans and travel great distances. This is yet another fundamental law of nature that the meat industry has failed to respect. Not just live cattle and birds but beef and meat too are imported and exported. And so the diseases come along with the meat as a package deal. And when there is a global panic, the affected countries begin to do what they ought to have done in the first place – stop all movement of live animals and birds intended for slaughter across national borders and freeze import and export of meat. Trans-continental pandemics have been caused also by the jet-hopping tourist, corporate executive, industrialist and businessman travelling from one country to another. These agents of the globalised economy are the most common vectors of all communicable diseases. This too has been proved beyond doubt by the SARS pandemic.
The global meat industry has resulted in intensive farming of animals and birds which violates basic laws of nature
Close on the heels of the SARS scare came the avian flu contagion. Avian influenza is an infectious disease of birds caused by type A strains of the influenza virus. The disease, which was first identified in Italy more than 100 years ago, occurs worldwide. Influenza viruses belonging to the Type A category have several subtypes. These subtypes are broadly categorised into the HA and the NA varieties depending on the nature of the surface proteins of these viruses. Only five subtypes in the Influenza Type A category affects humans – three belonging to the HA variety and two belonging to the NA variety. But birds are known to be affected by viruses of all subtypes and this is the core of the issue.
While influenza viruses affecting wild birds have little impact upon them, the same viruses assume virulence and prove fatal to domestic birds like chicken, ducks and turkeys. And they assume pandemic proportions when they affect birds bred in captivity and in confined spaces and can then spread rapidly from farm to farm becoming more and more virulent. When new influenza viruses emerge among humans, they are usually killers because humans have developed neither the immunity nor the vaccines to resist them. And once the virus emerges and spreads, it establishes itself and cannot be rid for several years, sometimes even for a century.
The current avian flu virus of the H5N1 strain first emerged in South Korea in December 2003. By January the flu had spread to Vietnam, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, China and Pakistan. The flu had also emerged in distant Delaware in the US where some 12,000 birds were slaughtered to contain the pandemic. Even the Netherlands was affected by it around the same time.
It is obvious there is a link somewhere and the link can only be import and export of poultry, poultry feed or the import and export of bird meat. There is a global panic this time because unlike in the previous instances of widespread avian flu pandemics in the US in the 1980s and in Hong Kong in 1997, in 2000 and again in 2003 which affected only the birds, this time the flu had ‘jumped’ to humans and was taking a heavy toll in Vietnam and Thailand, mostly children and the elderly, indicating low levels of natural resistance. It has not yet been confirmed that the virus is communicable like SARS. It therefore remains only to be proved that it was the eating of birds affected by the flu virus which caused the virus to jump from birds to humans.
Just as the world is still silent about how the SARS coronavirus ‘jumped’ from animals to humans and became communicable upon mutation, the world is silent about how, the avian flu which is supposed to affect only birds, has now ‘jumped’ from birds to humans. Recent research has shown that viruses of low pathogenicity can, after circulation for sometimes short periods in a poultry population, mutate into highly pathogenic viruses. During a 1983–1984 epidemic in the US, the avian flu virus initially caused low mortality among the birds, but within six months became highly pathogenic, with a mortality approaching 90%.
Control of the outbreak required destruction of more than 17 million birds at a cost of nearly $65 million. During a 1999–2001 epidemic in Italy, the avian flu virus, initially of low pathogenicity, mutated within 9 months to a highly pathogenic form. More than 13 million birds died or were destroyed.
The corpse eaters and the meat industry in which nations have big stakes and which affects their economies, are unwilling to spit out this truth about the risks of meat-eating. There is some ballyhoo that the virus jumped from birds to humans because of the proximity of humans who handled the affected birds. In which case, health authorities have to tell us why it did not jump in Hong Kong in 1997 or earlier in the US in 1983. Unless the avian flu virus too has mutated since 1997 and this mutation has caused the virus to become communicable in nature, which makes it ‘jump’ from birds to humans. If indeed there has been a mutation of the avian flu virus, then scientists have still not told us why it mutated; unless as in the case of SARS, the avian flu too has them flummoxed. The strangest thing about this mutation is that while this virus now ‘jumps’ from birds to humans, it is not being communicated from human to human. At least, not yet.
Scientists researching the deaths by avian flu in Thailand and Vietnam have not been able to establish so far that humans affected by the avian flu communicated the disease to others. Which brings me back to my theory – the disease ‘jumps’ from birds to humans only when humans consume the meat of birds affected by the avian flu virus.
The global meat industry has resulted in intensive farming of animals and birds which violates basic laws of nature. Unnatural confinement of any creature that has legs or wings which are meant to be used to move freely, can only lead to illness and depression. And confining animals and birds by the tens and thousands in animal and poultry farms is a sure prescription for pandemics.
Breeding animals in unnatural conditions, keeping them alive in unnatural conditions, feeding them unnatural foods and in an unnatural manner reflects gross abuse of the intrinsic sanctity of all creation, of all forms of life. Having violated all these fundamental laws, to go on and move animals and birds unnaturally over long distances is only to compound the first abuse.
Bringing a life-form into this world by the hundreds of thousands through unnatural pregnancies and breeding methods only to kill them or slaughter them for meat-as-a-fad or to contain diseases caused by human perversions, is the nadir of human depravity. Cows, cattle and birds have all been slaughtered and culled by the hundreds of millions in the last thirty years alone to contain the spread of diseases which humans have caused to happen in the first place. While these animals have been killed and culled, the diseases continue to remain at large. BSE is still around and so is SARS and so is the avian flu.
In 1997, despite the fact that Hong Kong culled its entire chicken, duck and other poultry stock, the disease resurfaced in 2000 and again in 2003. These insane corpse eaters are endangering the world and the lives of even those that still respect the laws of nature and have respect for all forms of life and do not participate in this madness.
Radha Rajan is a Chennai-based political analyst. She is also author and animal activist.