Livestock production and the spread of diseases – how agribusiness is made for disaster

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April 20, 2020 by Cláudia

Based on intensive monocultures and an international trade market, the current configuration of the food sector is highly susceptible to the spread of diseases. We know that 70% of new diseases are zoonotic diseases. Can farming be the main responsible for the spread of epidemics?

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In industrialized countries, mastering the natural elements has become proof of our superiority as a species. Industrial animal production, in essence, the subjugation of sentient living beings, is the archetype of this megalomaniacal dominance. The myth of the human dominance of the natural elements has been the source of perverse and unpredictable consequences that, in essence, try to tell us what, as Humanity, is so difficult to accept: the natural elements obey laws that we cannot control or fully understand.

And this is particularly relevant when it comes to intensive agricultural exploitation because, not only it entails an intensive use of resources, with disastrous consequences for the ecosystem balance, but the animals raised for human consumption are living organisms with their own ecology. The food industry, while trying to equate animal production with the production of consumer goods, demonstrates its profound misunderstanding of the role that animals play in ecosystems.

And this basic misunderstanding has catastrophic consequences. In Big Farms Make Big Flu, researcher Rob Wallace tells us essentially that industrialized livestock production led to the spread and globalization of pathogens (disease-causing agents) that circulate in animals. This means that industrial animal production is an important vector for bacteria and viruses that, due to international trade and the ever-decreasing genetic diversity in the agriculture sector, have become more virulent and easily spread to wide geographical areas.

Similarly, FAO, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, leaves us with a very clear and unambiguous message: since 1940, 70% of new diseases that have appeared in humans have originated in animals. Some examples were the avian influenza, Ebola and MERS (Middle East respiratory syndrome, which is a type of coronavirus). In the report, they point out that these viruses can rapidly undergo progressive mutations, increasing their mortality and infection rate, and that bacteria are increasingly resistant to antibiotics, which are routinely administered to animals. And they leave us with a warning more current than ever: when new outbreaks occur, governments, communication channels and most medical establishments are so focused on the specific emergencies that they neglect the structural causes that lead viruses and bacteria to generalize one after another.

The drastic decrease in genetic diversity of food products entering the market, result of centuries of genetic selection, dramatically enhances the spread of diseases and greatly facilitates their geographical expansion. Monoculture production makes it so that if a virus or bacterium is capable of knocking down the immune defenses of an animal, it can quickly infect a large number of animals. The low hygiene and high-density conditions that animals face can also contribute to the decrease of the animals’ immunity, on one hand, and to the speed of transmission, on the other. Basically, the current configuration of the food industry, industrialized and with less and less genetic diversity, is the way to produce food that is most prone to disease transmission.

The food industry, monopolistic and focused on immediate profit, calmly accepts the risk of transmitting deadly diseases to the population and continues with its plans of world conquest. Public and private investments in entrepreneurial agricultural production make it increasingly difficult for small producers to survive, those who have ancestral knowledge and typically produce diverse indigenous crops. Once the ecosystems are unbalanced, pathogens previously confined to small geographical areas, are now free to move on to other animals, local populations and, due to international trade, to large population centres.

But it is not just in terms of public health that the food industry is failing us. The food industry is a major player in many other contemporary problems. The excessive use of pesticides and chemical fertilizers in monoculture regimes causes soil erosion, making cultivation increasingly difficult, which in turn leads to the increasing use of toxic substances. The predatory expansion of agribusiness engulfs small producers, creating enormous social challenges for a part of the population that has always lived off the land (and who has valuable knowledge about it). Intensive and industrialized animal production goes against our inherent empathy and raises animals in subhuman conditions, ignoring their most basic needs. Intensive farming, in particular livestock farming, is one of the key sectors that cause the climate crisis, due to deforestation, greenhouse gases emissions, especially with raising ruminants, and the completely unnecessary and irrational food transportation over long distances.

The food sector is currently a destructive industry, focused on immediate profit, without scruples, comparable with the most polluting and unfair industries in our world economy, such as the fossil fuel industry. To continue this path is to guarantee more deadly epidemics, more hunger, less and less arable land, less food sovereignty and increased food insecurity. But there is another way. A new food system will have to incorporate what really is important in food production: health, ecosystem balance, empathy, valuing ancestral knowledge about the land and the ability to feed the next generations. And when we start to think about what really matters, a new food paradigm begins to emerge, based on ways of producing food that combine economy and ecology, valuing the local markets and indigenous products, valuing the knowledge of local producers, promoting local sovereignty, the preservation of ecosystems and biodiversity.

 

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Sources:

  • Rob Wallace. 2016. Big Farms Make Big Flu. New York: Monthly Review Press.
  • FAO. 2013. World Livestock 2013: Changing disease landscapes. Available at: http://www.fao.org/3/i3440e/i3440e.pdf

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