Industrial agriculture is reaching the last wild places of the Earth and it’s leaving dangerous pathogens. It’s time to solve the problem of ecology and economy, making food and making money, says Rob Wallace.
SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus behind Covid-19, is spreading. It’s infecting hundreds of thousands of people every day around the world. Some countries have handled the virus badly – for example, the US, Britain, and Brazil. These governments have sometimes suggested letting the virus ‘run its course’, let it do what it wants. This was in the early days and before the vaccine. With little scientific evidence, politicians such as Donald Trump said herd immunity (when most people are immune) will save us – but perhaps leave millions dead.
Agribusiness also says that the industry that started many of this century’s viruses is the right thing to do. Organisations like the Animal Agriculture Alliance and the Breakthrough Institute say biosecurity, technology, and economies of scale – bigger is better – are the only way to protect us from another pandemic. But agribusiness production and land grabs have left us with many pathogens in the past twenty years.
How did we arrive at a time now when people say the causes of the crisis are the solution? Modern agriculture came with capitalism, the global slave trade, and science. European countries used imperial scientists to look at the new lands and their people. Imperial science also helped to make money from these lands and these people.
From Europe and Africa, capitalism followed and grew across the Americas, the Caucuses, and the tropics. It makes local food into exports. From 1700 to 2017, croplands and pasture grew by 500% to 27 million square km. After the Second World War, the livestock and crops industry increased more than before. We now use forty per cent of the ice-free Earth for agriculture. We will bring many millions more hectares into production by 2050, especially in the Global South. There we will cut down the last of the rainforests and savannahs. Poultry and livestock today are 72 per cent of all animals. There are now cities of pigs and chickens. Planet Earth is now Planet Farm. The result is that there is less diversity in animals and crops. Technology chooses only a few breeds and we lose varieties. This affects ecology and public health.
The big pathogens
Industrial production uses only a limited number breeds, mainly pigs and poultry. In that way we lose the local breeds of many animals in the non-industrial countries. We find the same thing with crops and industrial livestock. With agriculture’s advance, natural habitats and animal populations are getting smaller and faster than before. That destroys indigenous and small farmer land and livelihoods.
Deforestation and development are increasing pathogens from wildlife and animals and the workers who look after them. Covid-19 is only one of a number of new pathogens. These pathogens have appeared suddenly in the 21st century as dangers to us. These viruses – avian and swine flu, Ebola, Q fever, Zika, and many others – are all connected to intensive agriculture. They are also connected to cutting down forests and to mining.
Pathogens appear in different ways, it depends on the place and the commodity. But all are connected to environmental damage. This explains why the new pathogens are international. SARS in China. MERS in the Middle East. Zika in Brazil. H5Nx in Europe. Swine flu H1N1 in North America. How does production start these outbreaks? The diversity in primary forests keeps us safe from ‘wild’ pathogens. But cutting down forests, mining, and intensive agriculture change this. In the past infections burned out quickly in the forests, but now they can suddenly spread much more widely.
Ebola is an example. Since the mid-1970s, Ebola outbreaks usually appeared in one or two sub-Saharan villages and then died out. In 2013-15, the Makona strain of the Ebola virus appeared along a frontier of monoculture oil palm and other crops out of a globalized West Africa. The Makona Ebola strain was not very different in its genetics but it infected 35,000 people, and killed thousands in big cities. Suddenly it was only an aeroplane flight away from the rest of the world.
Other diseases, avian and swine influenzas appear close to big cities in the North and South. All except two of the 39 avian influenzas from 1959 onwards, appeared in commercial poultry operations, usually tens or hundreds of thousands of birds.
What is it about industrial farms that makes them breed these infections?
They grow industrial turkeys in barns of 15,000 birds. They put hens in barns of up to 250,000 birds. Overcrowding and poor hygiene bring intense stress to these food animals. It makes their immune systems weaker and they are more likely to have infections.
They now kill animals at younger and younger ages. They grow chickens in only 6 weeks and pigs in 22 weeks and this may mean more deadly pathogens, including infections that can survive in younger, stronger immune systems.
With no reproduction on-site and breeding offshore, livestock populations cannot evolve resistance to pathogens. As survivors do not breed, they cannot pass on their resistance. So when meat production is industrial, global agribusiness makes pathogens industrial and they infect its livestock and poultry. Where does Covid-19 come from?
Chickens on a farm in France. When they put thousands of genetically identical birds together, there is nothing to stop the spread of disease. GETTY IMAGES
Covid-19 comes from forests and the industrial farms.
Bats around the world carry coronaviruses. But the strain that bats carry in China appears to affect humans worse when it jumps species. The environment in which these bats live has also changed in important ways.
With its economic freedom after Mao, China followed the way of BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) and wanted to feed its own people with its own natural resources. Millions came out of poverty. Millions did not. And so there was Chinese agribusiness and wild-foods business in central and south China, where many of these bat populations live.
Like Ebola, the contact between the bats, livestock, wild-food animals, farmers, and miners increased. This increased the spread of SARS-like coronaviruses. Using more pesticide may have reduced the insect populations bats feed on. This may have increased the carriers of coronavirus shared with human populations as bats looked further for food.
With the wild-foods and agricultural production increasing, many SARS-like coronaviruses spread into food animals or into humans and made their way to regional capitals such as Wuhan. Then they spread on the global travel network.
Is there anything we can do?
Yes, there is. We first must say no to the ‘normal’ that brought us this problem. Growing food isn’t about making objects. We must change agriculture from an industrial economy back to a natural economy. We must respect the soil, water, air, ecology, and community wellbeing on which food, and the people who eat it, depend.
To stop the worst pathogens, we must preserve forest (and wetland) diversity. We must keep ecological barriers across bats, geese, other places of natural disease, our food animals, and our communities. We must bring back agrobiodiversity into livestock and poultry to stop pathogens on farms and landscapes. We must return to letting livestock reproduce on-site so that herds and flocks can protect themselves against pathogens. This means giving control to rural communities, and taking it away from agribusiness.
We must have state planning that wants farmer autonomy, community socioeconomic resilience, circular economies, co-operative supply networks, land trusts, and reparations. We must undo race, class, and gender trauma at the centre of land grabbing and environmental alienation.
We must end the unequal ecological exchange between Global North and South. We must heal the split between ecology and economy that drives pathogens and climate damage at the heart of modern agriculture.
Agribusiness is the main source of the pandemic problem. It cannot be the answer to the problem. We can think better and act better.
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(This article is in easier English so it is possible that we changed the words, the text structure, and the quotes.)