In the Grip of Disease

Even more than war, the corona virus pandemic is causing chaos. It is threatening the people of the United Kingdom as well as human beings all over the world. The virus is invisible. It can be everywhere and nowhere.

Virus of confusion

You turn on the radio or television and the only discussion is about this incomprehensive enemy. Restaurants are closed. Schools are closed. Libraries are closed. Even factories and airplanes are shutting down.

Meanwhile, the Trump administration is back to its tricks of lining the pockets of the rich. Congressmen and senators are fighting the virus with tons of money, something like 2 trillion dollars, as if money will order the virus to take a vacation. Democrats say we need to help the unemployed workers and the Republicans say we must fund airlines, hospitals, hotels and corporations. To top this Tower of Babel, Trump is preaching nonsense, but zeroes in the corruption of the money likely to go to his tower company and  other billionaires. As for the spread of the virus, the Trump message is confusing, ignorant, and immoral.

Ignorance and cruelty

Jeffrey Sachs, professor of economics at Columbia University in New York, explained the crisis, March 24, 2020, in this way:

“Our health system is focused not even first and foremost on curing disease; it’s focused first and foremost on making money… We have drugs that could stop many other epidemics now, like hepatitis C, that don’t do so, because they are priced hundreds of times more than their production costs because of the unbelievably broken system we have to give monopoly power to powerful companies, who then use their unbelievable profits, in part, to buy the Congress. So, the corruption of our political system has driven so much attention to the wrong things, away from our well-being and now even away from our survival. And it is amazing to listen… to conservative commentators say, “Yeah, we should go back to work quickly.” The president, of course, said this inanity yesterday, but others in the conservative movement saying, “We need to save the economy. Of course some people will die, but why are we wasting so much money on lives? This is a corruption of the most basic human spirit. It’s a kind of sickness that has infiltrated our public life, of now literally money before lives, money before survival. And it leads to a kind of blindness, because it’s not only cruelty that we’re seeing. We’re seeing profound ignorance. Of course, the president is the ignoramus-in-chief. He knows nothing, understands nothing. He’s a vulgar narcissist. But we have so many people in this country that know something, but where are they when Congress is spending $2 trillion? Where are the experts being listen to? Our system is broken because the greed has supplanted the basic values, and the greed has supplanted people who know what to do.”

Sachs hit the nail on the head. Corruption is so pervasive and the Republican oligarchs so abusive that the United States is following the virus of Rome. America is securely in the grip of disease.

What about food? 

I have been on the periphery of this drama. Food, however, brought me slightly closer to its implications. I walk to the neighborhood food grocery for food. A few days ago, a huge crowd formed a line about an hour before the store opened its doors. I returned home. Sometime later, the food store managers allowed some 10 people to enter the building every few minutes. Once in the “supermarket,” I saw people anxiously and in haste grabbing food, not looking at each other, looking all around, lest they diminished their “social distancing” of 6 feet.

I bought a few organic tomatoes and fruits and vegetables and got out of the store. But my mind was flooded with images of possibly worse situations, when war, natural disasters, the looming climate chaos make it difficult to find food.

Food is too important to be at the hands of the very few, as it is now in the United States. Scarcity of food or no food is a potential calamity of unfathomable consequences. And if the virus has a silver lining, let it be this: The next president, most likely Senator Bernie Sanders or former vice president Joe Biden, must tackle the food crisis with equal passion I hope he addresses the climate change monster.

Pesticides are highways of disease 

Rosemary Mason, a physician and a courageous critic of polluters and the government in the UK, says pesticides make people vulnerable to the virus. In an email to me (March 23, 2020) she said:

“The problem is that many people in the UK and the US have all the effects of pesticides, particularly glyphosate [a global best-selling carcinogenic weed killer of Monsanto-Bayer]. Many [British and Americans] are grossly obese and have diabetes. In Britain, Cancer Research UK (run by the pesticides industry) and Dame Sally Davies and all the other medics and the media blame lifestyle choices for causing cancer; alcohol, smoking and obesity! We are going to have many, many deaths, and, of course, the government is not prepared and many of our frontline staff haven’t even got protective equipment!”

Mason is right about pesticides and corruption. The pesticides industry is equally powerful in the United States. Pesticides define agriculture in this country and most of the world. Agrichemical companies and their bought and sold scientists have convinced politicians that pesticides are safe, emblems of modernity, and necessary for greater food production.

In mid-twentieth century, the entire fake campaign of the “green revolution” (i.e., agribusiness) funded by the World Bank, the Ford Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation, was based on big machines and the use and overuse of deleterious chemical pesticides.

Pesticide merchants, however, never talk about the effects of their products: making humans more susceptive to diseases as well as causing deadly diseases: cancer, brain and nervous system damage, harming the immune system and causing chaos to the hormones, disrupting their chemical messages in the body.

I remember one of my students at Humboldt State University telling the class a story of drinking water laced with DBCP (1,2-dibromo-3-chloropropane), a castrating soil fumigant. He said there was no clean water near his house, but the poisoned well. In 1979, EPA banned DBCP.

Americans have been eating food contaminated with these deadly chemicals for decades. In theory, they are ill. But, in most instances, they don’t know they are sick and no one is helping them to understand their predicament.

With some rare exceptions, the medical, scientific and government regulatory and political establishment remains silent about the immediate and chronic effects of deadly sprays. They rather kill millions than challenge the feudalism of agribusiness. It’s another case where the ruling class has sold its soul to agribusiness-petrochemical corporations. It’s like protecting another version of  nuclear weapons.

Pesticides go with large farms producing one crop at a time, converting thousands and millions of acres of land to areas of death for honeybees, Monarch butterflies, birds and other myriad forms of wildlife.

In 2019, the US produced corn in 91.7 million acres of land. A third of the corn went to feeding cattle, hogs, and poultry; more than a third was turned to ethanol, an additive to gasoline; and the rest of the corn became the source for beverages and industry. Some corn is exported for food.

Soft drinks and snacks include high fructose corn syrup, which fuels the epidemic of type 2 diabetes.

Large farms represent industrial agriculture powered by petroleum-burning tractors and other gigantic machinery. This factory-like farming is damaging the environment. It is responsible for “the degradation of groundwater, surface water, soils, and biologic diversity. Social costs include a growing rural-urban divide, a worldwide obesity epidemic, and antibiotic resistance…. this system did not “naturally” evolve but is the result of accidents of history, lock-in, and path dependencies, and most importantly, the active government promotion of industrial agriculture.”

The power of agroecology

Should we continue with such deadly enemy of nature, which also poisons our food and drinking water, while making us more vulnerable to the corona virus? Clearly, no. We know how to grow food without poisons and without killing wildlife.

Miguel Altieri, professor of agroecology at Berkeley, has been criticizing giant agriculture for decades. I met him in the mid-1990s when the EPA seconded me to the United Nations Development Program. He is a rare academic scientist who did not mind working with his hands and learning from peasants. He put in practice the latest findings of ecology and the insights and wisdom of peasants and formed agroecology. He has no doubt that, in an age of pandemics, agroecology is the answer. In “Agroecology in Times of COVID-19,” a paper he authored with his colleague, Clara Ines Nicholls, he reached these conclusions:

“Agroecology has the potential to locally produce much of the needed food for rural and urban communities, particularly in a world threatened by climate change, and other disruptions such as disease pandemics. What is needed is support to amplify agroecology in order to optimize, restore and enhance the productive capacities of local small and urban farmers. In order to realize such potential, successful local agroecological initiatives must be widely spread via farmer to farmer pedagogic strategies, creation of agroecological lighthouses, reviving traditional systems and reconfiguring whole territories under agroecological management. To enhance the economic viability of such efforts equitable production of fresh fruits, vegetables, and some animal products can be improved using agroecology, thus contributing to local food security and nutrition, especially in underserved communities. Urban food production has doubled in just over 15 years and this expanding trend will continue as people realize that in time of crisis, access to locally produced food is strategic.

“Local and regional market opportunities should also be developed. Consumers should, at this point, already realize that eating is an ecological and political act, so that when they support local farmers, instead of the corporate food chain, they create socio- ecological sustainability and resilience. Transitioning agriculture via government policies will take time, but each of us can accelerate the process by making daily choices to help small farmers, the planet and ultimately our own health. Transitioning towards agroecology for a more socially just, economically viable, environmentally sound and healthy agriculture will be the result of the coordinated action of emerging social movements in the rural sector in alliance with urban based movements that are committed to support the radical transformation of the dominant, collapsing globalized food system. It may be wise in these days to reflect on the fact that ecosystems sustain economies (and health); economies do not sustain ecosystems. COVID-19 is reminding us that disrespectful treatment of plant and animal biodiversity has consequences, and when they are harmed, ultimately, so are we. Let’s hope that this current crisis triggered by COVID-19 will help illuminate humankind to search for a new world and softer ways to interact with nature.”

My hope is that the next Democratic administration will listen to Altieri and the attractive options of agroecology for the peaceful transformation of America’s agriculture and food, making them healthy to us and the natural world.

President Sanders or Biden should use the antitrust laws to break up agribusiness to small family farms, which can start growing a large variety of food. Agroecology is a path to that democratic transition, including the end of the grip of disease.

Evaggelos Vallianatos is a historian and environmental strategist, who worked at the US Environmental Protection Agency for 25 years. He is the author of seven books, including the latest book, The Antikythera Mechanism.