Industrial Food Production and the Pandemic

Photograph Source: Gene Alexander, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service – Public Domain

Covid-19 comes from the primary forest, from bat caves. In a world without industrial agriculture encroaching on that forest, in a world without the corporatization of a wild-food industry, Covid-19 would probably never have left those caves. The pandemic was not caused by small-holder agriculture, and the virus probably did not escape from a lab. As it becomes endemic, it may become unstoppable. But not so the next pestilence. If we revamp our food production system now, maybe the pathogens lurking in primeval forest viral reservoirs will stay there, instead of hopping onto planes to London, New York, Beijing, Moscow and other metropolises.

A new book by Rob Wallace, Dead Epidemiologists: On the Origins of COVID-19, argues just that. According to Wallace, industrial agriculture pushes “capitalized wild foods deeper into the last of the primary landscape, dredging out a wider variety of potentially protopandemic pathogens.” And that’s only half the story. The other half traces the threat of avian and swine flus posed by factory farms and their peculiarly unethical forms of monoculture. Wallace focuses on how those monocultures remove immune firebreaks.

This book argues that in addition, factory farms may force “corporatized wild food companies to trawl deeper into the forest,” getting new pathogens, “while reducing the kind of environmental complexity with which the forest disrupts transmission chains.” So several threats: factory farms themselves; the push into forests for wild foods picks up new pathogens; that push also disrupts a web of life that kept those pathogens in check. And that’s before Wallace even touches on the broader topic of industrial crop farming and its planetary destruction.

Dead Epidemiologists thus links novel viruses to agribusiness and deforestation, which release them, causing them to spill “over into local livestock and human communities.” He cites this happening with Ebola, Zika, Makona, the coronaviruses, yellow fever, avian influenzas and African swine fever, for starters. Many of these “previously held in check by long-evolved forest ecologies are being sprung free, threatening the whole world.” For agribusiness, however, “a virus that might kill a billion people is treated as a worthy risk,” a cost of doing business paid not by that business, but by humanity at large, aka an externality. The food industry is only too happy to socialize this cost onto the rest of us, to infect and kill millions of people, as it rakes in its privatized profits.

Wallace’s solutions include ending monoculture by introducing livestock and crop varieties, and rewilding, as has been done somewhat with buffalo in the American west. That’s long-term. In the shorter term, he denounces herd immunity based on letting covid run rampant as “let’s do maximum damage,” and describes how the staggering U.S. failures to cope with this plague were “programmed decades ago as the shared commons of public health were simultaneously neglected and monetized.” Instead of Malthusian herd immunity, “we need to nationalize hospitals, as the Spanish did. We need to supercharge testing…as Senegal has. We need to socialize pharmaceuticals.” And I would add, where there are lockdowns, the government should subsidize idled workers and small businesspeople. All of this, of course, is anathema to the Trump regime.

According to Wallace, 40 percent of our planet’s ice-free surface is covered with its largest biome, agriculture, while 72 percent of animal biomass is poultry and livestock. He decries the “geologic scale” of industrial agriculture and how it geologically transforms “vast swaths of Earth’s surface into solar factories, carbon mines, and manure lagoons, an alien landscape hostile to most life forms outside the interest of capital, save a subset of suddenly opportunistic pathogen and pest stowaways.” In short industrial, chemical agriculture takes up too much space, is killing the planet and will ultimately kill us, too.

Wallace observes that three Iowa watersheds, “home to 350,000 people…host the waste equivalent of Tokyo, New York City and Mexico City combined.” This phenomenal pollution derives from our livestock and poultry cruelly crammed together in filthy, disease-ridden cages to produce protein for human consumption. When this factory farming produces diseases, standard operating procedure is to blame small holders; that’s now part of the agriculture “industry’s standard outbreak crisis management package.” But of course, it’s really the big industrial factory farms, with all their horrors of animal torture, that are to blame.

In this connection, however, Wallace argues convincingly against the extremes some may rush to – lab-grown meat and advocating global veganism. He cites the massive quantities of carbon burned to produce tiny portions of lab-grown meant, so massive as to outweigh any environmental benefit of vegetarianism based upon it. As for veganism, much of the world, the non-first world, is pastoral. People live with their animals and eat some of them. Imposing veganism on pastoral herders is ridiculous, a kind of colonial stupidity.

Instead, this book champions regenerative agriculture based on use value, not food produced as a commodity, and argues that such an approach is incompatible with capitalism. Small farms with variegated livestock and crops, worked by families are what’s needed. Wallace advocates the peasant agriculture promoted by the organization, La Via Campesina, and for planning agriculture that self-regulates “in such a way that the deadliest pathogens are far less likely to emerge.” He has little use for commercial pesticides and GMO crops. They simply destroy too much of the natural world; besides farming can proceed quite successfully without them.

Before covid, such plans were often dismissed as left-wing fantasy. Now they look like our last chance to save ourselves from collapsing ecosystems, novel, deadly plagues and a fatally warming planet. The official U.S. covid body count is over 226,000. Experts say it’s closer to 300,000. It will probably go much higher. The disease, some medical scientists believe, will become endemic and may require a yearly vaccine, like the flu. That vaccine may only be 50 percent effective, like the flu vaccine. So people will be wearing masks for a long time. Better to be inoculated and masked and survive, than suffocate to death from a virus released from a remote bat cave by an out-of-control food production system. We can’t bottle covid back up in its subterranean den, but we sure can prevent the next disease from escaping.

Eve Ottenberg is a novelist and journalist. Her latest book is Birdbrain. She can be reached at her website.