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Vegan Life Meets

Alex Lockwood and Dr. Alice Brough

If we don’t change our relationship with animals, medicine as we know it will end here — we talk to the people behind the new doc that explores this, The End of Medicine

As vegans, we are already aware that humankind’s relationship with animals is exploitative and cruel, but did you also know that it is dangerous for us humans? New feature-length documentary The End of Medicine, seeks to expose the underreported link between global pandemics, the failing of antibiotics and our use of animals.

The film follows former factory farm livestock vet and whistle-blower Dr. Alice Brough as she grapples with the enormity of animal agriculture and the key role it has played historically (and currently) in not only killer diseases and pandemics, but climate change and environmental destruction as well.

With expert interviews from industry insiders, government advisors, politicians, top scientists and leading doctors, The End Of Medicine sounds the alarm few have heard.

Following the film’s release in the US (UK release date soon to be announced), we catch up with the activists behind the film, director and BAFTA-winning filmmaker Alex Lockwood (73 Cows) and the starring vet herself, Dr Alice Brough, to dive deeper into the doc’s alarming themes and what the future holds.

Hi Alex and Alice! To begin, why do people need to see The End of Medicine and hear Alice’s story?

Alex: The evidence very clearly shows that if we don't change our food systems, we must accept that not only are future disease outbreaks more likely to occur but also that the ever-growing issue of antimicrobial resistance, will be heavily exacerbated. Whistle-blower, Dr. Alice Brough's story is such a powerful one as she is somebody who has spent years working for and facilitating the very industry she now hopes to challenge.

She's not just someone who ‘jumped on the bandwagon’ as it were but is instead, somebody who came to her realisation about animal agriculture because of an intimate knowledge of agricultural veterinary procedures and the terrible experience of having to be involved in them. Alice's career was built around this industry, and so for her to be able to step away from it to take a moral stance I think will give audiences the motivation that they too can make positive changes when it comes to what they eat.

What made you want to create this film, Alex?

Alex: Currently, our governments and the mainstream media aren't taking these issues seriously enough. Given the severity of the threat posed by antimicrobial resistance and future disease outbreaks, I really wanted to create something that would help to get this information out there. I believe people have a right to know about how these emerging threats are linked with our choices at a consumer level.

“Zoonotic outbreaks are becoming more regular the more we intensify our exploitation of animals and the environment and there is no predicting how deadly the next pandemic may be”

When were you first approached about the film, Alice? Did you jump at the chance to have your voice heard, or were you afraid of the consequences?

Alice: I first heard from Alex in 2020 at the height of the pandemic! Although being in the spotlight doesn’t come naturally to me, the issues highlighted in the film are extremely serious, and if I can add weight to something so vital for the public to hear I will always say, yes. I guess the bigger picture is more important to me than my personal comfort… and as I was already facing difficulties for speaking out against my former industry, I thought I might as well carry on!

Why don’t you think anyone is talking about the fact that animal agriculture is causing diseases? The science is evidently there, so what is stopping people from believing it and understanding its importance?

Alex: This information is deliberately kept very secret. The animal ag industry spends millions each year lobbying governments and donating to various political parties. As a result of this, we live in a world that is, politically speaking, shaped by the animal ag industry. This has a cascading effect that trickles down so much so, that accurate information about the industry is jeopardised.

For example, in the USA it's a criminal offense in some states to film undercover within factory farms. Here in the UK, Dr Brough herself was threatened with disciplinary action from the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons (RCVS) for simply sharing her viewpoints on farming practices. The industry is supported by our governments in helping sustain the narrative that eating animals isn't harming us. Creating a film that we know is likely to challenge the bulk of viewers is daunting, but I've tried really hard to make sure that the film doesn't come across as preachy or patronising, but more so, that just tells the truth.

For readers who don’t know, what are zoonotic diseases and how do they originate?

Alice: A zoonotic disease is an infection (viral, bacterial, fungal or parasitic) that can pass between non-human animals and humans. They can originate in many ways; via food, air, water, insects (like ticks and mosquitoes) and from direct contact with the animals themselves. What we’re now familiar with is how the COVID-19 virus ‘jumped species’ from animals to us, and also adapted to spread very easily from human-to-human.

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“Right now, we are heading for a world without functional antibiotics”

Alice, when you started doing your research on zoonotic diseases, as you say early on in the film, ‘going down a rabbit hole’, were there any studies or cases that particularly stood out to you? What emotions did you go through, as you learned more and more?

Alice: My feelings regarding the human health risks were mostly disbelief at how little attention is paid to them — in fact, active distraction from the issues is at play, as with most damaging industries. I was particularly concerned looking into influenza.

Having experienced swine flu very severely myself in 2009 and having watched farmers and pigs pass the illness to each other over the years, plus the unhygienic mixing of birds, pigs and humans on farms in awful air spaces, I was and am shocked that it is not notifiable nor even under active surveillance. There are no acceptable plans in place to prevent an outbreak, but the government has a document detailing plans for the 750,000 excess deaths predicted for an influenza pandemic — it’s absolute insanity.

Why are wet markets a hotpot for zoonotic diseases?

Alice: Pretty much everything about a wet market makes it perfect for disease to arise and spread. The animals are highly stressed, in close confinement with many others (both dead and alive), there is opening of body cavities, opportunities for cannibalism, and animals that wouldn’t naturally be anywhere near each other are brought in from different places. Add to that an unnatural interface between people and animals where humans encounter respiratory secretions, faeces, etc. and then take them home to consume. It’s a nightmare scenario.

Are Western factory farms and slaughterhouses much different?

Alice: Only one of those factors listed for wet markets doesn’t apply to our factory farms and slaughterhouses, and that is the bringing together of many different species of animal in one space. Everything else applies and is just as concerning. We have to also consider that factory farming drives a demand for crops, drives deforestation and habitat loss and therefore contributes to an unnatural interface between species in the wild and on farms.

Do you think that we have gotten off lightly so far, with having 'only' had the emergence of COVID-19?

Alice: Within our lifetimes we have also seen devastating effects of other zoonoses — Ebola, SARS, MERS, swine flu, HIV/AIDS and of course, foodborne disease which kills hundreds of thousands of people a year. The mortality rate of COVID-19 has been relatively low, so in that sense we have got off lightly, though there are many other features (like ‘long COVID’) that we don’t yet understand fully. However, zoonotic outbreaks are becoming more regular the more we intensify our exploitation of animals and the environment and there is no predicting how deadly the next pandemic may be.

Could it get much worse? What is the potential for pathogens in the future?

Alice: The 1918 ‘Spanish flu’ (of avian origin) killed 50 million people, and predominantly affected young people, so yes, it can easily get much worse. Without functional antibiotics, secondary infections (e.g. bacterial pneumonia) in viral outbreaks like COVID or influenza will increase mortality rates of future pandemics exponentially, and right now, we are heading for a world without functional antibiotics.

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It must have been extremely difficult to witness the things you did whilst working in factory farms. How did you handle it?

Alice: In short… as best I could. To do well at my job I had to ‘parcel it up for later’ — maintaining a good relationship with clients, able to laugh and joke with them and colleagues, and effectively respond to emergencies meant I continued to behave as I always had when around others. Usually when I got in the car at the end of the day was when all the (appropriate!) emotions would surface, and the haunting images most often resurfaced in dreams or when faced with others eating meat or arguing against veganism. I still suffer with the resulting complex PTSD now, three years out.

What do you think is the most poignant moment from the film, Alex?

Alex: For me, the most powerful moment is when Riverkeeper Rick Dove, reflects upon the kind of future he feels his Great Grandson may experience. It was such an emotional response we hadn't anticipated him giving. When people allow themselves to be vulnerable on camera within documentaries, I feel that's when audiences really connect.

Did the team face any major challenges during the making of the film?

Alex: There were so many obstacles to overcome in the making of this film. The first issue was that we set out to make a documentary about pandemics around October 2019, and then a pandemic actually happened. The film had to switch from being a warning to also being a reaction to what was happening. Whilst this isn't a film about COVID, we used the pandemic to contextualise the issues set about in the film. Another major issue was that we struggled to get people from within the animal ag industry to speak on camera with us. We believe that previous vegan agenda films may have spooked the larger companies/food producers and that they have now become even more secretive as a result.

 Why do you think DEFRA declined an interview for the film?

Alex: After a long exchange with DEFRA, we were really disappointed that they ultimately decided that they wouldn't be interviewed for the film. As a government body, we felt it was their duty to answer some tough questions. Ultimately, I feel they didn't want to be challenged.

If our own patterns of consumption are driving us down a no-return road, what is the solution? Is there a way back? What can we do to rectify the situation and safeguard the future?

Alex: The answer to this question is hard for some to hear. The data shows that where we can (and most of us can), we must go vegan. There is simply no way to produce animal products in a way that is safe when it comes to human health, safe when it comes to planetary health, and humane when it comes to the treatment of animals. However, you farm animals, be it grass-fed, free[1]range, whatever, you create risk. It's tricky to make a film with that as its core message as most people would prefer the message to be tempered.

It had been suggested to us by some that it may be more palatable to present the idea that having fewer animal products in our diet is the way forward rather than having zero animal products. As much as we know that audiences at large would feel less confronted by that watered-down message, we felt very strongly that the film needed to be truthful and scientific.

Alice: Any way in which we exploit animals or our environment we create massive problems for ourselves, I just hope that we learn this lesson sooner rather than later or we won’t be able to counteract the consequences. Every alarm bell is ringing, and the only solution is to act now — leave animals alone, keep forests, soils and oceans intact, stop extracting and using fossil fuels, and ban plastics and harmful chemicals (as an urgent start!).

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How did you feel, Alice, when you received the letter from RCVS about the possibility of your license to practise veterinary medicine being revoked? Why do you think the institution was so threatened by your comments about the pig industry?

Alice: At first, I panicked — this is a big deal, and it was incredibly stressful. However, I always knew in my heart that I was right, and it became a great opportunity to explain in full the issues within the pig industry to the regulators of the profession that is supposed to protect animals. It’s easier to criticise one person’s opinion than tackle a multi-billion-pound industry and all its constituent parts.

What were your first thoughts when you found out that the disciplinary case was dropped?

Alice: ‘Sensible choice.’

What are your future plans? Will you go back to practising veterinary medicine in another setting?

Alice: I find it hard to look ahead with so much uncertainty facing humanity from the climate and ecological emergency, the end of medicine and the likelihood of increased pandemics and disease. I have considered practising as a companion animal vet — and from a financial perspective, I probably should — but this doesn’t seem urgent to me right now and I feel there is more impactful work to do as an activist.

In the film, you state that the RCVS and farms ‘work hard to stop people from exposing their secrets’, does that mean then, that they know that what they are doing, that what is happening on farms is wrong? Why don’t they want to make things right?

Alice: I meant the industry as a whole, really — and the simple answer is that people likely wouldn’t buy their products if they understood the true cost of their choices.

What is the true danger of antibiotic/antimicrobial resistance; how much time do we have?

Alice: Over the last five years, the number of deaths attributable to AMR has jumped sevenfold from 700,000 to 5,000,000 every year — this is a staggering increase given the prediction five years ago was that there would be 10,000,000 deaths a year by 2050. The most senior figure in the UK on the subject warns that this could kill us before climate change, so it would seem we don’t have very long if we continue to overuse and misuse these lifesaving medicines in animals that simply need not exist.

Should we be afraid?

Alice: Well, yes… but also understand that many of the most frightening issues facing humanity are interlinked, and as consumers we actually have a great deal of control over the key contributing factors if we choose to see it and act, whether that’s through making different choices or joining the fight for change

What should viewers take away from watching The End of Medicine?

Alex: What I hope viewers will take away from the film, is a feeling that they themselves have enormous power to bring about positive change to the world. We often underestimate the power of the individual when it comes to these wider issues, but each person who goes vegan sets in motion a chain of events with profound outcomes. How can we make governments acknowledge that there is an issue with animal agriculture?

How can we make them act?

Alex: Sadly, our governments don't shift focus when the science becomes irrefutable, and they don't shift focus because of any kind of moral framework. Governments seem to only shift focus when the voting population overwhelmingly demands it of them. So, the best way of bringing about political change is to ensure that we as a population don't support destructive industries and that we continue to make noise and spread the word about them. As Dr. Aysha Ahktar says in the film, "If we're going to wait for our governments to do the right thing, we're going to be waiting for a long time."

The End of Medicine is currently available in the US to pre-order, and will be available in the UK from later this year. For more from Alex and Alice, and to watch the film trailer, visit theendofmedicine.com and follow @theendofmedicine on Instagram.

 

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VeganLife

The lifestyle magazine written by vegans for vegans.