Alfonso Senovilla, a vegan activist, is the official Public Health Veterinarian for the Ministry for Public Health in the community of Castilla-La Mancha. His broad career in animal defense and his first-hand experience on farms and in slaughterhouses has made him a well-known expert in animal protection. Senovilla also stood as a candidate for the European Parliament at the last election.
Alfonso, does eating animals make us sick?
According to the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations), approximately 75% of new diseases that have been detected in humans over the last few decades originated in animals.1 In terms of the latest pandemic that we are currently suffering from, there is more and more evidence appearing that its origin is the transmission of the virus from animal to human.
Everything points to bats as the natural reservoir of the pathogen, with pangolins acting as intermediates. This has led to some scientists opting for the complete elimination of the sale of these animals in wet markets in order to prevent the transmission of zoonotic diseases.2
Are these transmissions from animals to humans something that was already well known in science?
That’s right, zoonotic diseases; the transmission of diseases from animals to humans is nothing new. We have experience from previous episodes with grave public health consequences such as Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in 2002, or Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) in 2012. In both cases the origin was identified as bats, which required the involvement of other species such as civets or camels to transmit the virus to humans. It’s also important, however, to remember that in 2009, swine flu (H1N1) originated in Mexican pig farms, and according to some sources caused the deaths of more than 285,000 people.
These events, viewed together with the estimate that 60-75% of emerging or reemerging diseases are zoonotic, force us to reconsider our relationship with the other animal species on the planet, not just from an ethical standpoint but also a public health standpoint.
Asian wild animal markets have been brought up time and again but what happens to the animals that are eaten in our country?
It’s fundamental that we stop trading wild animals, that we stop consuming them, and that we start respecting their habitats. That way, we will make it more difficult for a pathogen to be transmitted from wild animals to domestic animals to humans. It will also eradicate the suffering of these animals when they are caged and trafficked by those merchants. Furthermore, we would be helping to restore the environmental balance that has been so impacted by the actions of humans.
However, it isn’t solely wild animals that can cause disease in humans. Epidemics can also originate from farmed animals. As I mentioned, swine flu (H1N1) originated in a Mexican pig farm and there are many other zoonotic diseases which are dangerous to human health, such as tuberculosis, brucellosis and parasitic diseases.
So, it isn’t possible to safeguard public health while animals are consumed?
The ways in which animals are exploited for consumption nowadays not only has serious consequences for their well-being – caused by the overcrowded conditions in which they are reared, genetically selected, and other factors – but also the horrendous environmental consequences caused by intensive animal farming, which also cause public health issues. This includes the rise in resistance to antibiotics, which are enthusiastically used in intensive farming.
Tell us a little about the problems of using antibiotics
According to doctor Kazuaki Miyagishima, director of the World Health Organization Department of Food Safety and Zoonoses (FOS): “The volume of antibiotics used in animals is continuing to increase worldwide, driven by a growing demand for foods of animal origin, often produced through intensive animal husbandry.”3
The mass use of antibiotics in animal husbandry is due to the need to prevent or treat diseases caused by the very same conditions in which they live. With the aim of extracting a large quantity of meat products in a short time, the animals are kept in severely overcrowded conditions which make them more profitable but very vulnerable to illness.
According to ESVAC (European Surveillance of Veterinary Antimicrobial Consumption) data from 2014, Spain is top of the list of countries in the European Union with the highest use of antibiotics in animals, with doses of 418.8 mg per kilo of meat.
You yourself are a vegan, how did you make the change?
The key was my dog. I loved him and I realized that he was no different than a pig or cow that I was eating. Having worked as a vet in various animal farms and having also worked as the official vet in a slaughterhouse for 11 years helped the process.
In a place like a slaughterhouse, where thousands of animals are slaughtered, where the fear and anguish are visible and the effects of a life of imprisonment and exploitation are clear and present, an iota of empathy is enough to make you a vegan. It’s the only way to stop feeling the guilt of participating in their suffering.
Finally, what would be your recommendations for preventing new pandemics?
We have to accept that ‘one health’ (multiple sectors working together to improve public health) isn’t simply an objective, but must become a reality, a reality which we are not going to reach until we begin to respect other animals and improve their living conditions.
This implies a cessation of the intensive animal husbandry industry, starting with responsible consumption of animal products and opting for a plant-based diet. That would be the only way to reach adequate levels of animal health and welfare, public health, and environmental conditions.
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