The global response to the Coronavirus is clear: Social isolation, frequent hand-washing and self-quarantining when possible. While these are valid responses to a pandemic already underway, if all we learn from this pandemic is to avoid shaking hands, we have missed the point. To combat future disease outbreaks at their source, we must fiercely advocate for drastic institutional changes in the animal agriculture industry.

The live animal market in Wuhan has gained infamy in the last two months as the epicenter of the COVID-19 outbreak. It’s time to turn the spotlight on our own markets and consider the dangerous impacts that the American farming system has on our health. 

This is not the first epidemic that has emerged from animal markets or animal farming. Swine flu, avian flu, SARS, MERS and Salmonella are all zoonotic diseases that can be traced to animal farming. The CDC states that three out of four emerging infectious diseases in humans come from animals, and they infect millions of Americans every year.

Leading epidemiologists, scientists and policymakers have predicted an impending pandemic since 2003 after the SARS outbreak. Many experts pointed to the overcrowded conditions of American farms that could result in a catastrophic disease outbreak. Predictions became our reality in 2019. In reaction, the Chinese government placed a temporary ban on the consumption, farming and sale of certain wild animals across the country. 

Factory farms are a hotbed for the next pandemic. Every year, American farms slaughter nearly 10 billion chickens, pigs and cows who live in tightly packed, filthy conditions. The animals have so little space that they are often unable to turn around in their cages and are forced to live in their own excrement. As the animals are prepared for slaughter, their bodies have become so mangled and deteriorated that they are barely able to walk. These conditions are perfect for a disease outbreak. 

In an attempt to prevent the animals from dying in such horrific, overcrowded conditions, the USDA and FDA permit the indiscriminate use of antibiotics on meat and dairy farms. The use of antibiotics on farms, however, contributes to antibiotic resistance in humans. This is a major public health crisis. Emanuel Goldman from the International Center for Public Health notes, “agricultural uses of antibiotics pose a threat to public health. We need prescriptions for these drugs, yet the animal-food industries use them casually. This irresponsible misuse of antibiotics is unilaterally disarming our species from our precious last line of defense, and devastating epidemics may be the legacy of hunger for inexpensive meat. Legislation is urgently needed to curb this practice.”

Just as preventing climate change will require us to do more than change our light bulbs, preventing the next global pandemic will require us to do more than wash our hands. Leaving meat off our plates is an essential first step, but stopping the next pandemic will require that we do more. We must call on local, state and federal governments as well as major food retailers to make drastic institutional changes to our food systems. 

While you’re practicing social isolation at home, here are some actions you can take as a member of the Yale community:

Reach out to Rafi Taherian, associate vice president of Yale Dining Services, to ask Yale Dining to reduce the number of animal products on their menu and to make the default option at all dining halls a delicious plant-based option. Additionally, you can fill out the Yale Hospitality feedback form.

If you’re looking for simpler, faster ways to have an impact, check out The Humane League’s Fast Action Network. The Fast Action Network sends you biweekly emails with one-minute online actions you can take to help create institutional change on factory farms.

We cannot continue to ignore the innate connection between animal welfare, the American diet, the environmental impacts of factory farming and the spread of zoonotic diseases. The simplest and most impactful action you can take for your own health is to choose more plant-based meals. For the health of your community, locally and globally, we must advocate for institutional change in the animal agriculture industry. Preventing the next pandemic depends on it.

MANNY RUTINEL is a second-year student at Yale Law School. Contact him at manny.rutinel@yale.edu .

ZOE NOVIC is a student at the Yale School of Public Health. Contact her at zoe.novic@yale.edu .