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BEHIND THE MASK: How ‘One Health’ instrumentalizes nonhuman animals

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The One Health (OH) approach gives minimal attention to animal health for the sake of animals. It instrumentalizes animals by recognizing their value only insofar as it contributes to human flourishing, thereby reinforcing the very anthropocentrism that justifies exploitation of farmed animals, encroachment on animal habitats, and the wildlife trade that OH purports to address.

L. SYD M JOHNSON: One Health (OH) is an approach to health that views the health of humans, nonhuman animals, and ecosystems as interconnected. Conceptually, it emphasizes interdisciplinary approaches to global health challenges. The World Health Organization notes that OH “is particularly relevant for food and water safety, nutrition, the control of zoonoses … pollution management, and combatting antimicrobial resistance.” This statement of priorities is reflected in the growing literature on OH and pandemics, wherein the emphasis has often been on nonhuman animals as vectors of disease and resulting poor health for humans and on antimicrobial resistance and food-borne illnesses from the production and consumption of meat, dairy, and other animal products.

In 2022, the Quadripartite — a partnership of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the United Nations Environment Programme, the World Health Organization, and the World Organisation for Animal Health — announced its 5-year One Health Joint Plan of Action to “collectively better prevent, predict, detect, and respond to health threats” and “improve the health of humans, animals, plants, and the environment, while contributing to sustainable development.” Notwithstanding these goals, the plan prioritizes zoonotic and vector-borne diseases that affect humans, food safety for humans, and antimicrobial resistance. With the world still struggling with a global pandemic of zoonotic origin, these priorities are timely and necessary but also shortsighted. Indeed, OH has been criticized for viewing animal health through an anthropocentric frame of reference as a means to the end of human health.

We start from an assumption that all animals, human and nonhuman, have basic rights to life, freedom, and the opportunity to flourish. What those rights require on the ground varies by species depending on their needs and capacities, but, minimally, respecting the rights of animals assumes that their interests and lives are not automatically subjugated to human interests. The stated goals of OH are consistent with our assumption. Nevertheless, although OH approaches commonly mention animal welfare, they have given minimal attention to animal health for the sake of animals. The anthropocentrism for which OH has been criticized instrumentalizes animals by recognizing their value only insofar as it contributes to human flourishing, thereby reinforcing the very anthropocentrism that justifies exploitation of farmed animals, encroachment on animal habitats, and the wildlife trade that OH purports to address.

Like these exploitative practices, an anthropocentric OH accepts animal suffering if it serves specific human-centered goals, and it challenges harmful and exploitative practices only insofar as they fail to serve human-centered goals. Thus, threats posed by climate change to wild animal populations and threats to the climate from large-scale animal agriculture are important within OH approaches primarily because they have negative effects for humans—including health effects and threats to property and financial interests—and not because they cause significant harm to animals and destroy their habitats. Because OH approaches generally lack an ethical framework through which to view health in the context of rights and interspecies justice, they fail to recognize that animals have moral claims to health and well-being in their own right…

An OH framework that recognizes and respects the rights of life, freedom, and flourishing for animals and all humans must confront the reality that problems like climate change and zoonotic pandemics cannot be controlled or limited by select human-centered solutions because, fundamentally, privileged humans and their interests are the problem. By foregrounding ethics and justice, unjust trade-offs like culling, which sacrifice animal lives for economic interests, can be interrogated, along with the tolerance for the instrumentalization and exploitation of animals and humans within OH. Doing so would enhance the ability of OH to fully realize the goal of approaching problems like zoonoses holistically, systemically, structurally, and sustainably by recognizing that animal and human interests in health, life, and flourishing are only advanced by solutions that promote rights and justice for everyone. SOURCE…

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