Archive for September, 2023

Coronacast, food sources and pandemics

September 10, 2023

Tell them the truth and let them decide for themselves.

Naomi Negata, The Expanse

coronavirus statistics on screen
Photo by Markus Spiske on

I’m a regular listener of the weekly ABC Radio National show (via podcast) Coronacast. Dr Norman Swan and health reporter Tegan Taylor have been evidence based, trusted advisors on COVID-19 and other nasties (as Tegan puts it), vaccines, masks, and ventilation since soon after the start of the pandemic.

I love the show, its roughly 10 minute duration, no-nonsense approach, and attempts at comedic levity.

The title of the episode on August 16 2023 was Hello furry mammal are you the next pandemic?

The topic of zoonosis was discussed (my highlighting, here and elsewhere below):

Tegan Taylor: And so to today’s topic, Norman, zoonoses is a word that we all became rapidly familiar with at the beginning of the pandemic, it’s when diseases come from the animal kingdom into humans and vice versa, although we are part of the animal kingdom. And it’s one thing that we have to continue to watch, especially as we become so incredibly globalised. And in the context of farming, it’s often a breeding ground not just for the animals that are being farmed, but also for potential pandemics. And it’s something that scientists are watching particularly closely at the moment because of avian influenza.

Norman Swan: Yes, and actually a new paper on COVID-19 in mink, you might remember that 2020, 2021 there were these mass slaughters of mink in the Netherlands and Denmark, because what they showed was that there was COVID-19 to a very significant extent, maybe 60% or 70% prevalence in some mink populations, farmed mink, and that it was getting into humans and humans were reinfecting the mink, so there was what they call reverse zoonosis.

Tegan Taylor: Where we are giving it to the animal.

Norman Swan: Yes, that’s right and at least catching it from the animals. And this is where the worry is with these zoonoses, and we’ll come to flu in a moment, is that you get intermingling of viruses and the virus pops out as a very different virus. And that could be a source of another pandemic in the future.

They move on to H5N1, an influenza strain that has long been watched by disease outbreak authorities.

Norman Swan: Which is why they slaughter these populations because you want to reduce these populations. Fur is a discretionary item but food isn’t, which is why pig farms become very interesting.

Tegan Taylor: So that’s coronaviruses broadly in mink but hasn’t there been flu in mink as well?

Norman Swan: Yes, a recent report from Finland of fur farms…so these are farms that have foxes, mink and raccoon dogs. Remember raccoon dogs?

Tegan Taylor: They are very cute.

Norman Swan: They are very cute, but they carry coronavirus, as we know from the market story in Wuhan. So this is a survey from Finland very recently showing that the avian flu has spread into these populations of mink, foxes and raccoon dogs. So for those who like to be technical about this, this is influenza A and the type is H5N1 avian flu.

But this is where it starts to get very close to human beings because particularly mink are thought to be very similar.

And then there’s pig flu, swine flu, and swine flu is again…a survey in Cambodia of pig farms has shown an enormous variation of swine flu amongst pig populations, about 4,000 nose swabs from pigs, also looking at humans as well, and found that these mass variations of swine flu in the pig population, and also evidence that you’re getting reverse zoonoses, that humans are infecting the pig population. This is what happens. And food is not a discretionary item like fur.

Soon thereafter, we have this exchange:

Tegan Taylor: Yeah, it is a pretty confronting reminder of where food comes from, and not just the impact on animals, also the impact on humans.

Norman Swan: But we are slaughtering chickens, we have slaughtered millions and millions of chickens on chicken farms to prevent the spread of avian flu. And the potential is there to do that for pigs as well. But these are food sources, protein sources that are needed by the world’s population.

Tegan Taylor: Should we be rethinking our farming methods if we want to be controlling for future pandemics?

Norman Swan: The interesting contrast is between flu and COVID-19, we actually have quite good…it’s not brilliant, but we have quite good influenza monitoring systems. So we’re picking it up in pigs, we’re looking at pigs, we’re picking it up in mink farms in Finland, what we’re not doing is systematically surveying for COVID-19. If we’re picking it up, it’s almost accidental along the way on PCR testing. And so we’re not monitoring all emergent viruses.

Notice that Norman’s response to Tegan’s question is to change the subject to virus monitoring in pigs and mink. But the question was not about virus monitoring, but whether farming methods should be reconsidered.

Then there are statements like this in the exchange:

  • “Fur is a discretionary item but food isn’t.”
  • “And food is not a discretionary item like fur.”
  • Chickens and pigs “…are food sources, protein sources that are needed by the world’s population.”

Tegan’s question about rethinking our farming methods is important and one that few seem to want to seriously consider the implications of.

Of course it’s true, as Dr Swan says, that food isn’t a discretionary item, but the source of that food, of protein sources, does not have to be animals.

So, fur vs food as discretionary items is a false dichotomy.

I would really like to hear Tegan’s question considered further on Coronacast.

Another ABC RN podcast is Big Ideas. A recent episode of which was titled COVID, Zoonotic diseases, and the next pandemic. The intro starts with this:

Throughout human history, infectious viruses have moved between animals and humans without much fanfare. These are known as Zoonotic diseases. But every so often, they set off a chain reaction that can’t be contained, like the bubonic plague, or COVID-19. But the collective experience of COVID has given the world many lessons about what to — and what not to do — the next time there’s a Zoonotic leap. So what are those lessons, and is humanity able to not repeat the same mistakes?

The host, Olivia Willis, interviews Eddie Holmes, NHMRC Leadership Fellow and Professor of Virology in the School of Medical Sciences, University of Sydney, and Kris Helgen Chief Scientist and Director of the Australian Museum Research Institute (AMRI).

After an interesting interview, Olivia asked asked Eddie and Kris this question:

In thinking about stopping the next pandemic, I’d love to get both your perspectives on what you think is the single most important step right now to stop that happening.

Eddie responded by giving three things, two of which he thinks are doable:

  1. Make universal vaccines rather than the virus strain specific vaccines we have now.
  2. Stop the live animal trade or have better regulation and testing for viruses on a regular basis.

The third thing he says, is stopping the consumption of meat. He admits that he is being “controversial”, and thinks it won’t happen. In his words:

Consumption of meat is the number one thing for climate change and for these emergents. It’s a really big thing, right. I hate to say it. But it really is. And that, I think, would have a major effect on the number of viruses we are exposed to.

Kris immediately followed on from Eddie’s comment by saying that:

And that reliance on meat has to do with land clearing, it has to do with the wildlife trade, it has to do with all these types of things.

Eddie agreed enthusiastically, then continued with:

Factory farming too. In countries like Australia, the pig industry is continually a threat for influenza virus and other viruses too, and these animals are kept in huge numbers…and foot and mouth…would wipe out that industry very easily. So, our reliance on meat which is getting bigger…in terms of climate change, it’s just amazing. The beef industry, particularly. The effect that has on climate change is absolutely enormous.

This brings us back to Tegan’s question about rethinking farming methods.

Yet another ABC staple is Landline. In a recent episode, in addition to a story (one of a number recently) attempting to improve the image of the live export industry (cattle in this case), there was a story about the scale of the livestock sales business and the enormous number of cattle regularly trucked into stockyards, sometimes thousands of kilometres, from various parts of Australia and sold at auction to customers in Australia and other countries.

This reality along with the enormous number of animals in factory farms probably informs Eddie’s skepticism about the likelihood of ending meat consumption.

Although elimination is highly unlikely (an understatement) in the near future, significant reduction should not be, and we as consumers have control over this.

As a vegan, I obviously want to see meat consumption reduced primarily for the sake of the animals, but climate change and health (pandemic risk, anti-microbial resistance risk, preventable diseases of lifestyle) are also incredibly important factors, and if attention to these things helps get us to a net reduction of suffering, that’s fine with me.

Although there is an increased awareness now, even compared to a few years ago, I don’t know whether we’ll do enough towards climate change mitigation, better health outcomes, or reduced animal suffering in my lifetime. I’m not currently optimistic.

Something has to change, if for example, we want to reduce the pandemic risk and mitigate the worst effects of climate change.

It’s up to us though, and no-one is coming to save us from ourselves, as Carl Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot always reminds us.

Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.

Dr Seuss, The Lorax

The Animal Lover Paradox

September 9, 2023

I love the mountains, that’s why I never go there.


Peter Singer relates the following story in his book, Animal Liberation:

Soon after I began work on this book my wife and I were invited to tea—we were living in England at the time—by a lady who had heard that I was planning to write about animals. She herself was very interested in animals, she said, and she had a friend who had already written a book about animals and would be so keen to meet us.

When we arrived our hostess’s friend was already there, and she certainly was keen to talk about animals. “I do love animals,” she began. “I have a dog and two cats, and do you know they get on together wonderfully well. Do you know Mrs. Scott? She runs a little hospital for sick pets…” and she was off.

She paused while refreshments were served, took a ham sandwich, and then asked us what pets we had. We told her we didn’t own any pets. She looked a little surprised, and took a bite of her sandwich. Our hostess, who had now finished serving the sandwiches, joined us and took up the conversation: “But you are interested in animals, aren’t you, Mr. Singer?”

We tried to explain that we were interested in the prevention of suffering and misery; that we were opposed to arbitrary discrimination; that we thought it wrong to inflict needless suffering on another being, even if that being were not a member of our own species; and that we believed animals were ruthlessly and cruelly exploited by humans, and we wanted this changed.

Otherwise, we said, we were not especially “interested in” animals. Neither of us had ever been inordinately fond of dogs, cats, or horses in the way that many people are. We didn’t “love” animals. We simply wanted them treated as the independent sentient beings that they are, and not as a means to human ends…

Singer goes on to say:

The portrayal of those who protest against cruelty to animals as sentimental, emotional “animal-lovers” has had the effect of excluding the entire issue of our treatment of nonhumans from serious political and moral discussion. It is easy to see why we do this.

If we did give the issue serious consideration, if, for instance, we looked closely at the conditions in which animals live in the modern “factory farms” that produce our meat, we might be made uncomfortable about ham sandwiches … and all those other items in our diet…

This book makes no sentimental appeals for sympathy toward “cute” animals. I am no more outraged by the slaughter of horses or dogs for meat than I am by the slaughter of pigs for this purpose.

Singer’s declaration that he and his wife are not particularly interested in animals, nor do they consider themselves to be animal lovers, might seem odd to someone who has in mind some vegan or vegetarian stereotype.

I have much greater empathy for animals than I did before becoming vegan. But mostly I just want to leave them alone to live their lives.

They need their space. So do we. Some of us more than others.

I like to see and listen to the birds in my backyard, smile at the sight of ducks down by the river, or watch grey headed flying foxes (bats) on their nightly migration in our suburban area.

The fundamental paradox is that many people who have pets, such as cats and dogs, would never want to see them harmed and may even declare that they detest animal cruelty in general, and yet they consume animals that someone else has killed on their behalf.

Which is more difficult to understand?

  • Not treating animals as a means to our ends.
  • Treating some animals as friends, but others as food or fur.

Hunting ducks, tradition & mental health!?

September 6, 2023

source: ABC

As reported by the ABC on August 31 2023, in good news for ducks, recreational duck hunting is likely to be banned in Victoria from 2024.

The inquiry had more than 10,500 submissions, a record for a Victorian parliamentary inquiry.

It can only be hoped that South Australia, Tasmania, and The Northern Territory follow suit if a precedent is set. Currently, this is only a recommendation to be considered by the Victorian Government within 6 months.

The ABC News article mentions Steven Threlfall, a life member at Shepparton Field and Game, saying:

…for him, hunting was a family tradition that went back generations. He said we was disappointed to hear the recommendations but not shocked.

He raised concerns that a ban on duck hunting could soon spread to include other forms of recreational activities.

Such arguments from tradition pop up surprisingly often. But what does saying that something is a tradition mean here? This is the way we’ve always done things? I like this thing and so has my family for many decades? Because I want to?

Should tradition, the way we’ve always done things, liking something, be considered more important than someone’s life, just because that someone isn’t a member of your own species?

Next we encounter something, well, bizarre:

A number of building unions have threatened to walk off the job if duck hunting is banned, warning it was an affront to their members.

“More than 85 per cent want our union to campaign for the right to enjoy the outdoors, including their right to hunt,” CFMEU assistant secretary Derek Christopher said.

The right to enjoy the outdoors?

How about going for a walk in the outdoors?

The right to hunt? An affront?

What about the right of ducks to, I dunno, stay alive?

Or is being shot and left for dead not enough of an affront for you?

And this…

“The government must work with shooting groups and unions to secure a native bird season based on science, history, culture and working-class values,” Electrical Trades Union secretary Troy Gray said.

Stringing a few words together like science, history, culture, and values doesn’t necessarily yield a meaningful sentence.

And, if you add “working class”, that doesn’t automatically make everything permissible.

Then we have this:

Other recommendations included transforming hunting reserves into state recreation reserves, whilst also allowing traditional owners to continue to hunt ducks.

“There is clearly a need to improve the protection of sites of Aboriginal cultural heritage in State Game Reserves,” the report said.

And now, here comes something truly gobsmacking (my highlighting below)…

Not all in Labor agreed with the report.

Upper House MP Sheena Watt wrote her own minority report urging the sport to be allowed to continue due in part to the improved mental health outcomes hunting provided.

“We can’t promote mental health on the one hand and deny working people the opportunity to take part in an activity that clearly has positive mental health outcomes on the other,” she said. 

The Yorta Yorta woman said hunting as a cultural practice and an expression of identity for Indigenous people should be given more weight.

I’ve been through Australian Mental Health First Aid training twice in the last 3 years, and I’m 99.9999999% sure that the “sport” of shooting ducks or maiming them and leaving them to die a slow death was never once recommended as a way to treat depression or a means by which to promote positive mental health outcomes.

But the bit that really upsets me, makes me furious actually, is the last part of this statement by the MP:

…hunting as a cultural practice and an expression of identity for Indigenous people should be given more weight.

Cultural practice? Expression of identity. What, like stoning wombats?

Given more weight?


IF hunter is "traditional owner" THEN hunting = True ELSE hunting = False ?

This sort of selfish, evil nonsense plays right into the hands of the Liberal No campaign for the Indigenous Voice to Parliament we have to vote on in a few weeks, almost as if it’s deliberate sabotage.

I received an email recently from SA Liberal MP Jamie Stevens in which he said (my highlighting below):

We have spent decades breaking down inequality and building a nation and society with fundamental principles of equal rights and treatment for all. To reintroduce into our constitution principles that treat Australians differently based on their race, gender, sexuality, religion or any other attribute is objectionable to me. The strength of our democracy is that every Australian has an equal status in the decision making processes of our nation and our government. It is a national shame that upon becoming a federated nation in 1901, Indigenous Australians were not given the right to vote. Treating them differently in our Constitution was wrong then, and my values hold that it would be wrong to do so again through this proposal.

On the one hand, while this has the appearance of being reasonable, it misses the point that there is currently a gap between life outcomes for many indigenous people and that equal consideration of the interests of indigenous and non indigenous Australians is something to be examined and corrected where inequality exists. But, it must also be acknowledged that there are others in Australian society who are also disadvantaged, and the idea that in general, one person in Australia is treated no differently to any other is demonstrably false; missing from the list ending in “any other attribute” above, is financial status.

But, I digress…

On the other hand, while it may be a minority view, if the kind of advice given to the government of the day by a current indigenous Labor MP is: shoot ducks to improve the mental health of indigenous people, I could be forgiven for seriously questioning whether to vote yes in the Voice referendum. Despite my own confusion, I’m basically on the Yes side, but don’t give me reason to think I should not be, don’t make me teeter on the edge!

Time for some Plain Speakin’ as Shaun Micalef used to say on Mad as Hell

Well done Yorta Yorta Labor MP Sheena Watt. A win for Team Misanthropy! Has it occurred to you that your speciesist worldview actually represents a repetition of the sins of the white settlers who invaded your ancestors’ home? But you’ll never see that because you’re so blinded by the belief in your own importance!

I wonder what The Greens would say about the Labour MP’s words? I’m sure that some Greens MPs would be horrified.

I know what the Animal Justice Party would say.

But enough! The claim that the working class underdogs of Australia, indigenous or otherwise, have some special cultural or traditional “right” (an extremely overused word) to murder (for any reason) sweet, innocent ducks who just want to live their lives unhindered by unhinged humans, is WRONG plain and simple.

No compromise. No argument. End of story.

I’m normally keen to understand other people’s point of view.

Not on this matter. Sorry.

Quite a few years ago, before I was vegan, I spontaneously did my best to scare the bejesus out of a youngish couple on a walk near our local river by yelling obscenities at them when they let their dog off his/her leash allowing the dog to run after a duck and chomp down on the duck’s neck. I’d hate to think what I would do, or at least, what I would want to do if I saw someone shooting a duck…

This whole issue gets to the heart of the problem, the reason I can’t stop thinking, talking, and writing about this stuff, when I’d much rather focus on other things.

At the heart of the problem is the misguided belief that we are at the centre of things. Even before I was vegan I didn’t believe that, but I couldn’t figure out what I was missing.

What I was missing was the simple notion that no-one should be treated as a means to an end, no matter what their species, that the interests of animals, human and non-human should be given equal consideration, and that we should not tolerate suffering being inflicted on any sentient creature.

That’s it. Is this really so unreasonable?

The greatest ethical test that we’re ever going to face is the treatment of those who are at our mercy.

Lyn White, Director of Strategy, Animals Australia