We Need To Evolve: The Gastro-Cultural & Ethnomedical Traditions That Got Us Here

As distinct as they are in place and time, zoonotic disease outbreaks all have one thing in common. They point to the prevailing gastro-cultural practices that welcome eating animals at virtually every meal.

wet market meat

Perspective Health Lifestyle

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Like many of you, as I sit here nearing the end of week two of our mandatory but largely voluntary shelter-in-place order across the San Francisco Bay area which was recently extended across the entire state of California, I can’t help but think about what the future will hold and how we, collectively and historically, will look back upon this unprecedented time in modern human history.

While it’s understandable that the 24-hour news cycle focuses on the seemingly hourly breaking stories as well as staying on top of the most recent developments, tips and strategies associated with navigating the coronavirus pandemic, I’m interested in getting to the bottom of what got us here and what, if any, lessons can be learned from it.

And, caveat emptor—as this will not be an occasion to mince words or cater to the politically correct among us, I find myself, for once, begrudgingly in agreement with the current president of the United States in his assertion that the coronavirus originated from China.

Yes, this even despite recent claims from demagogues and nationalist rabble-rousers within China that the coronavirus began as a secret bioweapon by the U.S. Army that was let loose in Wuhan. In fact, the Chinese Communist Party has officially acknowledged that the first case of the novel coronavirus can be traced back to a wet market where live and freshly slaughtered animals are sold in the city of Wuhan, Hubei province sometime around December 2019.

So, while I am in circumspect agreement with the current POTUS that 2019-nCov started within China, I am less inclined to believe it was started by China and even less so that it is a “Chinese virus”. Hopefully, proclamations like this have already lost their sting and no longer come as a surprise as it appears that this sort of demagoguery is but the most recent example in a long line of concerted, deliberate and intentional efforts to cater to his base.

As such, while it is all but accepted fact (except by the most fringe elements of the conspiratorially-minded) that COVID-19 originated from a wet market in China, it has been less clear to me why there has been so little discussion of why it came from China.

What is a wet market?

In China, as well as in other countries across Asia, there exists this phenomenon of markets selling seafood and myriad other animals in varying states of life and/or death—some dead, some alive, many decaying in their own excrement but all kept in the most fetid and deplorable of conditions with an utterly reprehensible lack of regard for hygiene or food safety. The idea is that these animals will be “cooked” anyway at some point and, as such, the cooking process will kill whatever germs or pathogens are on them. As a kid visiting China 30+ years ago, I recall coming across these markets and I distinctly remembered them to be repellent, putrid affairs. Apparently, things haven’t really changed much.

And, maybe that’s part of the problem. Change, that is, or the lack thereof.

So, why do these kinds of markets still exist? The reason they exist is twofold. Firstly, the Chinese, as well as other Asian cultures, place a premium on “freshness” in their meats and seafoods and there is an ingrained belief that going to the market every morning is the way to obtain the freshest fare. Secondly, these markets provide access to animals other than the “traditional” livestock animals exploited for food—chickens, cows, pigs, hens, etc. These wet markets are also avenues by which shoppers can consume live or freshly-slaughtered “exotic” animals, animal appendages and other wildlife such as snakes, turtles, shark fins, dogs, bats, pangolins, elephant tusks, rhino horns, tiger paws, bear bile and other sundry items used in traditional Chinese medicine.

Anyone who read the news from late-January through February should undoubtedly be able to recall hearing that the prevailing theory among scientists and researchers from both the U.S. and China, is that the first case of this novel coronavirus most likely came from someone eating either an infected bat or pangolin (which just happens to be the most illegally trafficked wildlife globally) that was linked to the Huanan Seafood Market in Wuhan where live and freshly-slaughtered animals are bought and sold in putrid conditions that would make the uninitiated observer recoil in abject disgust. This one fateful event is what is thought to have caused the novel pathogen, now known as 2019-nCov, to cross the zoonotic barrier and jump from mammalian host to human carrier.

Ok, so why bats or pangolins? Admittedly, as an American or Westerner, it may be hard to grasp what would persuade someone to eat a bat, a pangolin or even a dog, for that matter. It certainly is hard for me to wrap my mind around. But, without getting too much into the weeds of it, a lot of these seemingly unorthodox culinary predilections can be linked back to either traditional Chinese medicine (hereby referred to as TCM) or Chinese gastro-cultural and ethnomedical traditions that are loosely linked to or derivative of TCM.

As reported in Foreign Policy:

“Part of China’s problem can be attributed to the power of traditional Chinese medicine, which is responsible for much of the trade in wildlife. Many wild animals in China are killed not for culinary reasons but for essentially magical ones. Whether it’s tiger paws or pangolin scales, quack cures persist on a vast scale—even in cases like bear bile where a real active ingredient existed, has been discovered, and can be produced in labs without animal cruelty. The government has been heavily promoting traditional Chinese medicine, especially under President Xi Jinping’s new nationalism, and while officially pharmaceutical companies following this model eschew the wildlife trade, the propaganda around such traditional medicine in general helps ensure belief survives.”

And, therein lies the rub—in an age of political correctness (or, are we officially beyond that and in the age of coronavirus?), how do we condemn a tradition or a practice without condemning an entire people or even an entire country?

Looking back for answers

I think history may hold some answers for us. I don’t know where the already-debunked Chinese/Asian ethnomedical practices sit on the hierarchy of pernicious cultural beliefs and traditions throughout history but they are definitely no longer innocuous—very far from it as this current pandemic bears itself out. But, they were never harmless as these “traditions” inflicted unspeakable suffering, torture and great harm to hundreds and millions of sentient beings—animals, like pangolins, that are illegally trafficked their scales, their tusks, their fins, their eyes, their blood or their reproductive organs in the misguided belief that ABC will cure their impotence or XYZ will prevent or disappear their cancer. There was always a cost—both to the people engaging in the illicit, high-stakes world of trafficking and to the animals being trafficked for their meat. But, now, the entire world is incurring the cost as we face the specter of a global economic meltdown and recession that, according to experts, will rival that of decades past.

To be sure, China must be held to account internationally for its role in starting the 2019-nCov pandemic and allowing it to become what it is now by initially severely underreporting the initial outbreak. As of this writing, China has indicated that there are “no new” confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus and it has received no small amount of praise from the WHO for containing the outbreak by completely shutting down the city of Wuhan (with a population of 12M), much of Hebei province and other affected major cities, including Beijing. These efforts may be commended but history will duly note that they only happened after the Chinese Communist Party found itself unable to suppress the initial reports leaking out in early January about the lack of containment and after attempts at downplaying and silencing the whistleblowers—among them Dr. Li Wenliang, who first sounded the alarm by reporting it to colleagues and authorities only to be censured—failed miserably.

I think there is still hope for China. I hope there is hope for China. And, if history is any indicator, I think there can be hope for all of us. Remember when the mighty, powerful Aztecs practiced human sacrifice a la heart extraction? Well, neither do I. But, they did.

And, after all, let’s not forget that it wasn’t too long ago—sometimes even less than a generation ago—that we still believed that, inherently, women shouldn’t be able to vote, that “witches” should be punished by burning at the stake, that it was acceptable to buy and sell other human beings to use as slaves for their labor, that we required people of different skin colors to use separate water fountains, that the gay and transgendered shouldn’t be granted equal rights of marriage under law, that adequate healthcare wasn’t afforded to every citizen in the most powerful nation on earth. Oh, wait, scratch that—let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves.

But, the overarching idea is that as we grew as a people and a species, we gradually learned to let go of the traditions and beliefs that no longer served us and held us back from evolving into our greatest selves. We still have a long way to go but it’s worthwhile noting that these tides of change never happened all at once—they happened in accordance with the zeitgeist and we are so much better for it.

And, while there is no question that China will, at some point, be held responsible on an international stage for its initial lack of response in this global pandemic, it can stand to immediately earn some credibility by renouncing the prevailing ethnomedical and gastro-cultural “traditions” that continue to play a preeminent role in the illegal global wildlife trade—the unspoken dark heart of 2019-nCov. I don’t know if the current Chinese Communist Party under Xi will take such measures and renounce the trade but there will be another steep price for all of us to pay if it fails to do so, not to mention solidify its reputation as a global malign actor of irredeemable proportions.

How will history look upon us at this current place in time?

Unforgivingly, I think, unless we take a long, hard look at some of the systemic beliefs and governing traditions that got us to this point. As a species and as a collective society, we have always managed to evolve by challenging previously-entrenched beliefs. Whether that was with human sacrifice, genocide, slavery or discrimination against gays, we ultimately rose to the occasion because, in time, those ideals appealed to our better angels and who we wanted to become.

And, while it’s convenient to point the finger at the pernicious “foreign” gastro-cultural traditions that got us to this point, doing so without examining our own beliefs and practices would be insincere not to mention intellectually dishonest. Despite being an inveterate offender vis-a-vis its responsibility for over half a dozen high profile foodborne and zoonotic outbreaks over the past two decades, China is far from the only country that needs to reconsider its systematic exploitation of animals for human consumption as large-scale pathogenic outbreaks have been recorded in several other continents in recent history and it is estimated that 70–80% of all the new infections that humans gets infected with come from an animal. These are referred to as zoonotic pathogens that “break out” and jump the animal-human barrier. For example, the oft-referenced “Spanish Flu” of 1918? Most likely originated from America. Ebola? West Africa. Bovine spongiform encephalopathy (aka “Mad Cow Disease”)? Concentrated in and around the United Kingdom. H1N1? Of indeterminate Asian origin. MERS in 2012? Saudi Arabia. And, as of the date of this writing, Germany just recently confirmed an outbreak of H5N8 bird flu in a poultry farm in the state of Saxony.

What do all of these seemingly disparate outbreaks have in common? As distinct as they are in place and time, they all point to the prevailing gastro-cultural practices of their time—ones that unquestioningly expected and practiced the eating animals at virtually every meal. Even now in 2020, in otherwise progressive, modern Western societies, we have chosen—by tacit endorsement—to buy into a system that is not only outdated and inefficient but, more importantly, has been proven to be deleterious to human, animal and planetary health. The de rigueur expectation of serving animal flesh come supper time doesn’t serve us collectively any more than forcing people of a different skin color to ride at the back of the bus half a century ago. In 2020, it should be considered antediluvian, retrograde and an insult to our best instincts because while it was once acceptable up to a certain point in time, we now know better and, because we know better, it’s up to all of us to do better.

But, what’s the alternative?

And, it’s never been easier to do better because, over the last six or seven years, advancements in food technology along with human ingenuity has opened up an entire panoply of innovative, full-flavored plant-based meats, milks and alternative proteins that provide just as enticing flavors, textures and nutritional profiles without the concomitant food safety issues, negative health outcomes and deleterious environmental effects that are inextricably intertwined with concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) that are ubiquitous in intensive animal agriculture. We will undoubtedly see a continual proliferation of these product offerings as new, alternative and plant-based protein purveyors continue to innovate R&D, find economies of scale, carve out market share and reach price parity with traditionally-farmed animal products.

Furthermore, with the growing acceptance of plant-based alternatives over the last several years, there has never been a better time to embrace personal, cultural and legislative policies that promote the growth of these innovations as an alternative to an exploitative system that is anachronistic, harmful to humans and animals, a leading cause of environmental degradation and—as we are now experiencing—unconscionably destructive to the global economy and our world as we know it.

Maybe change is never easy. We fight to hold on, we fight to let go. But, perhaps now, in the dark night of the soul that is this global pandemic, we can hear our better angels calling again and, once more, rally together as a society to work to let go of the harmful traditions and beliefs that helped to get us here—that it’s okay to systemically confine and exploit animals for their flesh, their body parts, their skin, their hair; they are here for us, not with us; that they must be in our food chain because…well…it’s just always been that way. The world is on the brink of seismic change in the coming months and years. And, as we find ourselves connected through the shared experience of this pandemic, so shall we be in our collective response to it. Indeed, 2019-nCov is a unique event but one that clearly demonstrates how people’s actions or inaction are inextricably intertwined and can have reverberating effects across a community, a nation and well beyond. I hope our actions reflect who we truly want to be in this defining moment in human history.

In light of the impending devastating effects of 2019-nCov, our descendants 25 years from now will not judge us kindly if we don’t make a radical change in the way we approach animals for consumption as the lights have been flashing red for a long time now (cf 1918 influenza, SARS, pandemic H1N1, ebola). It’s not difficult to imagine our future selves asking each other, “Can you believe that we used to confine millions of animals in crowded cages wallowing in their own filth only to eat their flesh for food?” Yeah, neither can I.

It is often said that mankind will always reap what she sows, in this life or in the next; it’s my hope that we reap introspection, wisdom and, ultimately, compassion in this most unprecedented of times.

A version of this article first appeared on Medium.

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