Every year, we try to do our part by getting a flue shot. Getting the shot isn’t just about our own health. We get the shot so that we won’t be part of the spread of disease. We get the shot for the vulnerable people who cannot afford to get sick—the infants, the immune system compromised and the elderly. When the flu spreads, they are the ones whose lives are endangered by everyone who avoids the shot because it costs them a short period of discomfort.
Since I have begun to eat a whole foods plant based diet, I have discovered that I am less susceptible to minor infections, the common cold and the flu. My immune system is stronger than it has been my whole life. Though I will still get my flu shot, just to be on the safe side, I have never felt more confident that this year the flu season will pass me by. That makes me feel good, because it means I will not only be giving the miss to whichever flu the CDC anticipates will hit the hardest this year, but to whatever unanticipated bugs might be coming this flu season.
How does the CDC anticipate which flu to protect us against? They are constantly monitoring reports of human infection. They can see what’s trending and prepare a vaccination in time to check the threat. However, it is not only human infection that they monitor. They also monitor reports about infection among farm animals. All of our most pernicious flu bugs have arisen from farm animals. The flu pandemics of 1957 and 1968 came from swine. The most recent flu scares have arisen from avian flu that developed among chickens.
While the viruses generally originate from wild animals, it quickly spreads to any farm animals in the vicinity. Domestic stock are more susceptible to illness than most wild animals. When the virus is introduced, it will infect large percentages of the domestic stock. The reason for this is that farm animals are kept in ultra-crowded conditions—equivalent to humans crowded tightly into an elevator. Chickens in particular spend their entire lives rubbing against each other and breathing the same air, being harried by their neighbor and endlessly seeking a way out. It is the perfect condition for the spread of disease. The stress alone makes them sickly, let alone their constant exposure to their neighbors’ illness.
As if this weren’t bad enough, farm animals are also routinely fed unnatural diets. It is common practice to feed “poultry litter” to cattle, for example. “Poultry litter” is a the stuff that they scrape from the floors of chicken enclosures. According to Consumers Union, the policy division of Consumer Reports, “Poultry litter consists primarily of manure, feathers, spilled feed and bedding material that accumulate on the floors of the buildings that house chickens and turkeys. It can contain disease-causing bacteria, antibiotics, toxic heavy metals, restricted feed ingredients including meat and bone meal from dead cattle, and even foreign objects such as dead rodents, rocks, nails and glass.”
Chickens being fed cattle and cattle being fed chicken results in a circular chain of infection being passed back and forth between populations of animals. It is hardly surprising that animals fed in this reprehensible way are sickly, and highly susceptible to viruses. Sick cattle, pigs, turkeys and chickens are in turn handled by farm and slaughterhouse workers on a daily basis. Their blood and feces are in frequent contact with humans. This makes it easy for a mutated virus to make its way into the human population.
The best way to do away with the annual cycle of flu epidemics is to get back to feeding animals on their native diet and to allow them to roam in a more health promoting way. The problem with this solution is that animals raised in a healthier way would be far too uneconomical. Natural feed is more expensive to produce and purchase. Animals fed their natural diet also produce less meat, which cuts the profits of the producers. They take up more space, which costs a great deal more money in real estate. In addition, there just isn’t enough land on the planet to produce the amount of beef that consumers now purchase if all cattle were required to be grass fed.
With our present use of resources, the meat industry cannot sustain its practices without dire consequences, and the demand for meat globally has been steadily growing. Every nation in the world wants to eat like Americans. This is a logistical impossibility. The earth just does not have the resources to sustain the growing demand. Something has to give.
Knowing that meat production is unsustainable, and that it damages not only the environment but also human health, it only makes sense that we need to transition to a meat and dairy free diet. Bill Gates has called the transition to a plant based diet, “The future of food” [see his blog entry here]. Big food companies, like Tyson and General Mills, have begun to invest in plant based food companies like Beyond Meat and Kite Hill. All forward thinking people have begun to see the writing on the wall. Plant based diets are the future, and when that future dawns we will see a drastic reduction in the number of deaths caused by flu bugs.