Brewing Pandemic Pestilence

Cattle eating in an animal farm in Central Valley, California. Photo: Evaggelos Vallianatos.

Where does the pandemic come from?

The 2020 coronavirus plague has three possible origins. It could be an accidental release from the Virology Laboratory in Wuhan, China, though similar “biosafety” labs exist in the United States.

The second source of pestilence is the centuries-long devastation of the natural world by mining, fossil fuels extraction, the logging of forests, industrialized fishing and one-crop mechanized agriculture relying on synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. Nature also suffers from wastes dumping in the oceans, the intentional burning of the Amazon and other forests in several countries for the growing of soybeans, corn, and other cash crops. Wars and vast armies inflict destruction and death to nature.

Rural animal factories of disease

Humans slaughter animals (wild and domesticated). The plight of billions of domesticated animals brings us to the third and most likely pandemic source: domesticated animals. Animal farms growing and feeding these animals have been factories of brewing pestilence in America and the world — for more than a century.

Pesticides are at the center of this ecumenical drama. They are the pillars holding together the giant one-crop farms producing food primarily for billions of domesticated animals on the menu of humans. In addition, pesticides are designed to kill life, which they do. But part of that process is disease, destroying the animal’s immune defenses, and making it more vulnerable to any additional stress and harm.

Our domesticated hogs, chicken, turkeys, and cattle live in animal farms or Confined Animal Feeding Operations – CAFOs. These sardine can-like enclosures have always been fertile grounds for animal and human pestilence.

A 2010 Center for Disease Control and Prevention study, Understanding Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations and Their Impact on Communities, stated that CAFOs “can cause a myriad of environmental and public health problems.” They do. Animal farms fill the air with ammonia, hydrogen sulfide, methane and particulate matter. That air is not fit to breathe. It causes serious injuries to lungs, skin, and eyes of both animals and humans.

In addition, the CDC warned that the pathogens found in the massive amounts of manure of CAFOs circulate through the air and water. “Healthy or asymptomatic animals,” the report said, “may carry microbial agents that can infect humans, who can then spread that infection throughout a community, before the infection is discovered among animals.”

In a September 23, 2019 report, CAFOs: What We Don’t Know Is Hurting US, the environmental organization, Natural Resources Defense Council, highlighted additional risks from CAFOs. America raises and largely eats more than 9 billion animals per year, the report said. These animals live their short lives in “massive industrial facilities” in “horrific conditions.”

There are thousands of CAFOs all over the country. Yet they remain unregulated and even the US Environmental Protection Agency does not know their exact number or location, according to the NRDC report.

Fear explains this secrecy. Put thousands, much less millions, of animals very close to each other and you guarantee disease among those animals and disease among humans feeding and slaughtering and processing the meat of those animals.

Yet Americans know practically nothing about these rural factories of disease, out in the open for all to see, but invisible nevertheless. Their owners know that if people discover the plague behind the pigs and chicken and cattle, they are doomed. That’s why EPA and the US Department of Agriculture say nothing and do nothing.

Expand CAFOs to include rice-duck farming and pig-duck-fish aquaculture and you multiply mischief in diseases with pandemic potential. This is especially true for the 10-million bird mega CAFOs, making possible genetic drift among confined animals and human workers.


The political, chemical, and biological technologies behind animal farms give rise to Frankenstein Chimeras. That Chimera monster is real. It is taking the shape of ever changing genetic mixtures of different species that don’t belong in the natural world or among people. Such a monster is without control, almost immortal, threatening its creators with disease and death. It has become a ticking bomb, not much different than the streaming fire of the Greek original mythical monster of Chimera.

The epic poet Hesiod describes (in his poem Theogony 319-324) a mighty, very large, dreadful, fleet-footed monster breathing fire. He calls this female monster Chimera. She had three heads: that of a shining lion, another one of a goat and still another of a savage snake. Her front was the lion, her back was the dragon, and the upper middle was the goat, which emitted an awesome gleaming stream of fire.

It’s the fire of Greek mythological Chimera that has taken the form of CAFOs’ disease and death. Humans then and now cannot manipulate or engineer the natural world.

Preventing plagues

Proposing alternatives to animal farms, biological warfare / biosafety labs, and the vast destruction of the natural world is probably doomed as that of banning nuclear bombs. However, I do suggest we ban all these deleterious institutions and technologies. Here’s my modest proposal on how to put brakes on the paths of plagues.

The best defense against another pandemic or the evolution of the present pestilence is to stop the destruction of the natural world: no more petroleum drilling or fracking, mining, logging, or converting forests to soybean farms; no more commercial fishing; dismantle, worldwide, the biological warfare laboratories; and end the genetic engineering and agricultural causes of pandemics: pesticides and animal farms.

Stop burning the planet

Climate change has accelerated this conflagration in the natural world. The intense and massive fires in the summers of 2020 and 2021 and 2022 in California demonstrate the monstrous power humans have been unleashing with their decades-long burning of fossil fuels.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a group of United Nations scientists studying climate change, issue their reports warning humanity of the dire threats of anthropogenic climate change. Antonio Guterres, Secretary General of the United Nations, warned that the August 9, 2021 IPCC report was “Code Red for Humanity.” On April 4, 2022, Guterres accused the rulers of the world (prime ministers, presidents, fossil fuel executives and billionaires) of deep corruption. He said they are liars who have been setting the planet on fire:

“The jury has reached a verdict. And it is damning. This report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [dated April 4, 2022] is a litany of broken climate promises. It is a file of shame, cataloguing the empty pledges that put us firmly on track towards an unlivable world. We are on a fast track to climate disaster. Major cities under water. Unprecedented heatwaves. Terrifying storms. Widespread water shortages. The extinction of a million species of plants and animals. This is not fiction or exaggeration. It is what science tells us will result from our current energy policies.

“We are on a pathway to global warming of more than double the 1.5°C limit agreed in Paris [in 2015]. Some Government and business leaders are saying one thing but doing another. Simply put, they are lying.  And the results will be catastrophic. This is a climate emergency. Climate scientists warn that we are already perilously close to tipping points that could lead to cascading and irreversible climate impacts.  But, high‑emitting Governments and corporations are not just turning a blind eye, they are adding fuel to the flames. They are choking our planet, based on their vested interests and historic investments in fossil fuels, when cheaper, renewable solutions provide green jobs, energy security and greater price stability….

“The science is clear:  to keep the 1.5°C limit agreed in Paris within reach, we need to cut global emissions by 45 per cent this decade…. It is time to stop burning our planet and start investing in the abundant renewable energy all around us.”

Guterres touched on all major tragedies inflicting humanity and the planet. Fossil fuel companies and their political subsidiaries in the castles of power in country capitals have been burning the planet. He also pointed to the plight of the natural world where millions of species of plants and animals are in trouble, thousands upon thousands of them on the verge of extinction.

Any solutions?

It would help if the international community founded a World Environment Organization to supervise and enforce this global disarmament – ending the destruction of nature and abolishing biological warfare. The WEI would guide the transition of the planet from fossil fuels to renewable solar and wind energy technologies.

The middle ground of agroecology

Conventional agriculture fails to feed the world. The Lancet Commission, a team of international scientists, said in 2019 that “much of the world’s population is inadequately nourished and many environmental systems and processes are pushed beyond safe boundaries by [conventional] food production.” These scientists are urging world leaders to transform the “food system.”

However, that transformation has always been present in traditional peasant farming in the tropics and organic family farming in the north and west. These forms of agriculture suffice to produce enough healthy food for the population of the planet. In fact, traditional farming could merge with the latest ecological knowledge about farming, known as agroecology. It could then spread beyond the tropics. It could spark a regeneration of rural America and rural societies all over the world.

The second advantage of replacing CAFO farms with organic farms enriched by agroecology is that CAFOs emit large amounts of greenhouse gases. Banning them would be a blessing for our fight against climate change, by far the most ominous threat after nuclear weapons to human survival and the survival of the natural world.

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.