Zoo, the flu, vegetarianism and you

Updated: Nov 6

by Savannah Ingham

Plant-based meals shared with the people you care about. Image credit: Jiroe, accessed on Unsplash

In 2020, we are desperately working towards developing a treatment for the coronavirus. It is important for us to look into the root causes of these pandemics to prevent their prevalence and recurrence. Pandemics are closely linked to animal agriculture, and going more plant-based may be one of the best things that we can do to protect ourselves and our communities from disease in the long run. It is interesting to investigate the cultural landscape and attitudes of South Africa in relation to a vegetarian lifestyle; how do we improve on our cultural frameworks?


The transition from a hunter-gatherer lifestyle towards an agriculture centred one during the Neolithic Revolution brought with it overcrowding due to urbanisation. Diseases began to spread to humans from animals as a result of the close inter-species contact caused by farming animals (zoonotic diseases). These are a couple of the main elements in the creation and spread of new diseases like influenza, measles and the bubonic plague; making a disease-soup that has been bubbling and dripping over the fires of civilisation ever since.


About 60 percent of human diseases are thought to be zoonotic in origin, with pig and poultry farming being the highest risk factors. COVID-19 itself was traced to a meat market in China; the notoriously deadly 1918 influenza pandemic was traced to a farm in America and even HIV, a disease that is still ravaging South Africa, is now thought to have first emerged during the 1920s in the Congo because of bushmeat consumption. As stated by the United Nations Environment and International Livestock Research Institute, “the domestication of animals led to livestock pathogens jumping species into people, where they became the probable cause of [many] diseases”. Currently, the H7N9 virus is the riskiest in terms of its pandemic potential (likelihood of spread and fatality). The industrialisation of animal agriculture has not helped these matters.


The average person today consumes far too much fat and meat than what is medically recommended; this demand for animal products has led to the formation of unsustainable farming practices plagued by deteriorating requirements regarding the ‘living’ conditions of the animals and destruction of huge portions of the environment to grow crops to feed those animals. It is possible that the animal agriculture industry is more concerned about its revenue than about the health of the people it supplies or the animals and farm workers that it often exploits.


A varied diet centering vegetarianism and veganism seems to correlate with longer life expectancy and better quality of life. Due to more and more people being exposed to plant-based ideas through education, it is becoming more common, but is still rare in South Africa; there are many complex cultural reasons for this. South Africa is one of the most unequal countries in the world in terms of resource distribution and is therefore is very food-insecure. People who are not certain about where their next meals will come from tend to rely on what is most easily available, it seems that the overfunding of animal agriculture can make it more difficult to access a wide variety of affordable fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, legumes etcetera.


In South Africa, some types of meat are also widely seen as a luxury, something that expresses a certain status because it is expensive (steak, for example). This is where I believe the gradual limiting of funding for industrialised animal agriculture through individual wallet-sovereignty in support of local, plant-based, sustainable farming will be productive, and perhaps we could begin to lessen the ideas of status that are attached to eating some parts of animals.


South African culture is very meat-centric. The vast majority of us grew up congregating during festive braais around fires laden with flesh, bravely captured and dragged home from the refrigerated section of a supermarket or butchery. There are some religions that promote vegetarianism, like Hinduism, but they are in the minority and most South Africans seem to have a sort of disdain for vegetarianism. Many men, in particular, seem to relate meat-eating with their sense of masculinity. This might stem from a primal part of our brains that conflates the consumption of an animal with the imbuing of that animal’s strength; cannibal-cultures believed this about eating their enemies. Men have also, historically, been responsible for obtaining meat through hunting; it was their role in the food production process for their communities. I believe that many people can feel judged by vegetarians and see vegetarianism as an out-of-touch elitist’s way of life; but most vegetarians that I know are very accepting and kind people who are just trying their best to live in line with their morals and ethics, as most people try to do.


It is difficult to break away from the norms of our society, our tribe. Food is such a wonderful unifier and there may be fear of exclusion attached to making changes in those traditions. I feel that it is the people that you spend quality time with that matter more than what you choose to fuel your body with, and if you can continue those same traditions with delicious, harmless vegetarian alternatives. You are honouring your traditions by improving on what you learned from them. Maybe you just like the taste of meat… but is that sensory pleasure worth more than a life? Is our comfort more important than the ultimate impact of our choices?


Animal agriculture is strongly linked with the creation and spread of diseases like COVID-19 and choosing to go plant-based is one of the most important and impactful choices that we can make as individuals in combatting future pandemics. Vegetarianism is about active compassion and trying to respect and learn from all those that you come across, even if you may not fully agree with their point of view. Most of us are doing our best to make ethical choices in our daily lives, none of us is completely successful. But, I have great faith in the

power of kindness and the human drive towards improvement. Let us be responsible in how

we utilise that power.


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Rhodes University (UCKAR), Makhanda (Grahastown), Eastern Cape

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