COVID-19: The Destruction Of Nature and Intensive Animal Farming Give Birth To Pandemics

13/05/2020
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Eleni Mitsou

The pandemic of COVID-19, caused by the new coronavirus (SARS-Cov-2), didn’t take everyone by surprise. For more than a decade, dozens of scientists around the world have been warning of the outbreak of pandemics, due to “super-viruses” from animals and microbes (germs) resistant to antibiotics, and have called on governments to take action.

The warnings did not come from “fringe” voices or just individual scientists. There have been forecasts of such pandemics in the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) studies [1], and the risks have even been acknowledged, relatively recently, by even the US Secret Service [2].

Dr. Robert Webster is one of the scientists who have been warning for decades about the outbreak of pandemics by so called “zoonotic diseases” (ie diseases that involve the transmission of viruses from animals to humans). Dr. Webster is the expert of the World Health Organization (WHO) on influenza, specializing in the interface between humans and animals [3]. He has been warning of a deadly pandemic for almost 60 years. One of the types of flu virus that has been a major concern for him for the past 20 years is H5N1, which kills 50% of humans it infects. What “limits” H5N1 so far is that it is very difficult to transmit from human to human – in contrast to the high degree of contagion of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.[4]

Despite the warnings, governments around the world had not taken any substantial steps to reduce the incidence of such viruses, nor to prepare for pandemics.

Taking such action would inevitably bring them into conflict with big business interests that destroy forest ecosystems (industrial agriculture, logging, mining multinationals, etc.) as well as with the intensive animal farming industry. Secondly, governments would have to invest in research on the treatment of viruses, as well as equip and “shield” public health systems -policies that cost a lot of money and bring no  returns and high profits to big capital.

“The destruction of forests leads to an increase in human diseases”

Diseases transmitted from animals to humans are not new. It is a phenomenon almost as old as agriculture and farming practices.

Jared Diamond (author of “Guns, Germs and Steel” which is now considered by many a classic) wrote about a decade ago:

The major killers of humanity throughout our recent history—smallpox, flu, tuberculosis, malaria, plague, measles, and cholera—are infectious diseases that evolved from diseases of animals[…] Until World War II, more victims of war died of war-borne microbes than of battle wounds.” [5]

Indeed, measles came from cattle [6], smallpox is thought to have been transmitted to humans by camels [7], influenza (the flu virus) by chickens and pigs, and so on. However, in the second half of the 19th century, the vast majority of infectious diseases had been controlled through vaccinations and other means.

Yet, the capitalist model of development had already paved the way for the spreading of new viruses or new virus-strains and for the outbreak of new pandemics.

In the 1980s, large logging companies started cutting down forests in Central and West Africa. One of the consequences of logging on a massive scale was the building of roads which allowed hunters to penetrate deeper into the forests and gain access to more prey. In addition, the use of rifles (which accompanied the colonisation of the African continent) made hunting much more efficient. Workers at logging companies, mines and oil fields operating in cleared forest areas, began consuming bushmeat more often. The newly constructed roads and the operation of large trucks also enabled the transferring of more prey into the cities. Thus the destruction of huge parts of African tropical forests was accompanied by a steep rise in bushmeat trade, including meat from chimpanzees and gorillas, which brought chimpanzee and gorilla viruses in a much more frequent contact with a much greater number of people, compared to the past. One of these viruses was the deadly Ebola haemorrhagic fever. It was  through similar processes, accompanied by significant social change in Congo (urbanization, increasing of prostitution, etc.) imposed by the Belgian colonialist rule in the early 19th century, that the AIDS virus began to spread in the second half of the century – a virus that, again, passed to humans through chimpanzees. [8]

How Forest Loss Is Leading To a Rise in Human Disease” is the title of an article in the online journal of Yale University’s School of Forest and Environmental Sciences. The article describes how replacing forests with huge palm oil plantations (palm oil the most marketable type of oil globally) or with grain and crop plantations for livestock feed leads to large outbreaks of infectious diseases such as malaria and dengue fever.

One of the mechanisms of transmission has been identified in Borneo. Scientists studying the increase in malaria cases within the communities that surrounded the jungle

realized the primates were concentrating in the remaining fragments of forest habitat, possibly increasing disease transmission among their own populations. Then, as humans worked on the new palm plantations, near the recently created forest edges, mosquitoes that thrived in this new habitat carried the disease from macaques to people.” [9]

Similarly, a 2010 study in Brazil found that for every 4% in forest devastation, the incidence of malaria in humans increased by 50% [10]. As for the destruction of Uganda’s forests, it has caused, among other things, the transmission (through mosquitoes, again) of the Zika virus to the Americas and Asia – the Zika virus causes microcephaly (underdevelopment of the brain) and other serious complications in fetuses.

It’s not just primates and mosquitoes that can transmit diseases to humans. Bats, rodents and even snails are carriers of dangerous viruses. The destruction of animal habitats, the change in the dynamics in their populations as well as the change in the dynamics and the balance between human and animal populations, lead to the transmission of new viruses or new virus strains from animals to humans that can develop into epidemics and pandemics.

From the capitalist industrial breeding to COVID-19

Intensive agriculture and especially intensive animal farming, which aim at maximising capitalist profits, are the two main causes of deforestation (followed by mining and industrial logging) and lead to the transmission of zoonotic diseases to humans both directly and indirectly.

In the early 1990s, China began to industrialize food production based on the capitalist model. One of the consequences was that small and medium-sized farmers could no longer compete with huge intensive animal farms. In order to survive, small farmers turned to raising wild animals which until then were rarely consumed and mainly only for subsistence . Consumption of wild animal meat gradually became part of the food market and the formal  economy and has led to greater human contact with the viruses, bacteria, parasites etc of this “new livestock.” [11]

Wildlife breeding farms have been set up at forest edges where the “wild livestock” come into contact with other wild animals such as bats, (probably in a different type of contact than the one they might have in the wild), and with their viruses [12]. It is in this way that SARS-CoV was transmitted from bats to civet cats and through them to humans [13]. SARS-CoV2, which causes the COVID-19 disease, is believed to have been transmitted to humans by bats through pangolins.

Capitalist intensive animal farming – The ideal conditions for the incubation of super-viruses

According to Rob Wallace, an evolutionary biologist at the Agroecology and Rural Economics Research Institute in St. Paul, Minnesota “factory farms are the best way to select for the most dangerous pathogens possible.” [note pathogens are viruses, bacteria, fungi and parasites]

The reality of factory farming (the most common type of intensive animal farming) is nothing like commercial advertisements picturing cows grazing in the meadows and chickens strolling in big barns. The real picture is one of huge factories with tens and hundreds of thousands of animals, immobilized with metal bars or in cages, standing for much of the day in their feces, away from the sun (the sun’s ultraviolet radiation kills viruses, among other things). These conditions dramatically increase the stress on the animals and severely weaken their immune system.

The huge concentration in numbers of these animal populations (let alone being immobile, with compromised hygiene, etc.) creates conditions similar to those in the trenches and barracks of soldiers in World War I, where the deadliest flu pandemic in modern history broke out, the “Spanish flu”.

Wallace explains that :

If you’re a pathogen in a host, you don’t want to kill your host too fast before you can get into the next host — otherwise you’re cutting off your own line of transmission. So there’s a cap on how much of a badass you can be. The faster you replicate, the more likely you end up killing your host before the next host can come along. If you’re deep in the wilderness or on a small farm, you (the pathogen) are not going to regularly come across hosts, so you’ve got to keep your virulence, or harm inflicted on the host, pretty low so that you don’t run out of hosts. But if you get into a barn with 15,000 turkeys or 250,000 layer chickens, you can just burn right through. There’s no cap on your being a badass.” [14]

In addition, the animals in industrial breeding are virtually genetically identical, as the breeds are created by selecting specific genes in order to have the desired characteristics (eg. large breast in the case of chickens, production of large amounts of milk in the case of cows, etc.). However, this means that a virus or other pathogens can easily spread from animal to animal without encountering genetic variations that could obstruct its path.

The “swine flu” in 2009, which killed about 18,500 people, was a new strain of the H1N1 flu. It  emerged in the industrial pig farms of North America and from there spread to humans [15].

Antibiotics

The conditions in which animals live in the intensive animal farming industry often lead to the emergence and spread of disease. In order to prevent situations that would reduce their profits and also to promote the growth of the animals the industry administers antibiotics to the livestock pre-emptively, often as part of their feeds.

Scientists warn that these practices lead to the development of microbes resistant to all known antibiotics. Already in Europe, 23,000 people die each year from antibiotic-resistant bacteria, while in the United States that number is estimated at 25,000. By 2050, some scientists estimate, these deaths will reach 10 million a year worldwide, exceeding the number of cancer deaths. [16]

The food industry is putting people and nature at risk

The food industry claims that intensive agriculture and intensive animal farming is “necessary” to produce enough food for everyone. But almost 50% of the food produced in the world is discarded before it is consumed [17].

At the same time, a quarter of the world’s population lives in conditions of food insecurity – they do not have enough food either permanently or periodically [18]. Intensive agriculture and farming do not aim to feed the world’s poor, but to increase the wealth and profits of the food and pharma industry’s conglomerates.

While industrializing meat production, the food multinationals have also promoted a culture of excessive meat consumption in the western world, where people eat meat up to 3 times a day instead of just a few times a week that previous generations would eat. Overconsumption of meat, however, is shown to be detrimental to human health, while intensive animal farming drains huge amounts of natural resources.

To produce 1 kg (2.2 lbs) of beef requires 15,500 lt (4,100 gallons) of water and 6-7 kg (13.2-15.4 lbs) of grains. In contrast, the same amount of rice needs 2,500 lt (625 gallons) of water and potatoes require only 287 lt. [19]

In order to make use of these resources (water, grains for livestock feed, etc.), forests (mainly tropical) and other ecosystems are being destroyed. At the same time, intensive animal farming and agriculture indirectly and directly expose people to dangerous pathogens.

When Dr. Webster was asked in a recent TV interview, if COVID-19 was the pandemic he has been predicting, he replied:

the short answer is no” and explained than in the future we will face much more lethal viruses. [20]

We demand:

  • An immediate end to the destruction of forests and the remaining ecosystems .
  • Radical change in the modern capitalist agricultural and farming model. Replace intensive agriculture with ecologically sustainable agriculture and the use of traditional seed varieties which have been adapted over centuries to the particular environment of each region. Replace intensive animal farming with sustainable extensive livestock farms with the traditional animal breeds for each region.
  • Mass education campaigns about the dangers of over-consumption of meat and a shift in the dietary model promoted in the West.
  • The establishment of democratically-run agricultural and livestock cooperatives under conditions of full transparency to produce high-quality, affordable food and at the same time provide a living wage for all workers in agriculture and farming. 
  • Scientific and material support to the cooperatives and small/medium farms from the state. For an agricultural and animal farm production plan based on the real needs of society and not of the profits of the multinationals.
  • Mass public sector investment into research to fight viruses. Scientific research should be conducted from public research centres, universities and other institutions in the interest of society. The research findings and all new treatments, drugs, etc should be the property of society and not of private companies that use them for profit.
  • Expansion and mass investment in the public health care systems: mass hiring of staff, construction of new hospital units, adequate supplies of necessary equipment, creation of large stockpiles to be used in future epidemic/pandemic emergencies.[see more on the public health care system here]

These radical changes, both in the way food is produced and in the approach of the public sector and public health, are incompatible with a system that operates on the basis of the profit for multinationals, capitalist market competition and the ecological disaster it calls “development” and “growth”. Protecting public health, avoiding new –possibly even more deadly– pandemics and protecting the environment, are linked directly to the struggle to overthrow capitalism and build a democratic socialist society. A society where the main means of production will be publicly owned and under the democratic control and management of society, with real equality, democracy, transparency and freedom. A new society which can protect the environment and put an end to the exploitation, poverty and hunger that characterise capitalism from its inception.


[1] fao.org: World Livestock 2013: Changing disease landscapes and fao.org: Industrial Livestock Production and Global Health Risks
[2] marketwatch.com: Opinion: The spies predicted the pandemic, but they couldn’t foresee a president who wouldn’t act quickly and boldly
[3] wikipedia.org: Robert Webster (virologist)
[4] theguardian.com: Robert Webster: ‘We ignore bird flu at our peril’ and who.int: FAQs: H5N1 influenza
[5] discovermagazine.com: The Arrow of Disease
[6] ncbi.nlm.nih.gov: Origin of measles virus: divergence from rinderpest virus between the 11th and 12th centuries
[7] ncbi.nlm.nih.gov: The Origin of the Variola Virus
[8] unchronicle.un.org: The Illegal Commercial Bushmeat Trade in Central and West Africa, wikipedia.org: Belgian Congo, sciencedirect.com: Bushmeat and ncbi.nlm.nih.gov: Origins of HIV and the AIDS Pandemic. Note: The initial “reservoir” of the Ebola virus is considered to be fruit bats, however the hosts that transmitted the virus to humans are thought to be chimpanzees, gorillas and other primates. 
[9] e360.yale.edu: How Forest Loss Is Leading To a Rise in Human Disease
[10] e360.yale.edu: How Forest Loss Is Leading To a Rise in Human Disease
[11] https://time.com/5819801/rethink-industrialized-farming-next-pandemic/
[12] theguardian.com: Is factory farming to blame for coronavirus?
[13] who.int: SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome)
[14] vox.com: The meat we eat is a pandemic risk, too
[15] fao.org: World Livestock 2013: Changing disease landscapes and vox.com: The meat we eat is a pandemic risk, too
[16] fao.org: World Livestock 2013: Changing disease landscapes and medicalnewstoday.com: Global use of antibiotics in animals
[17] theguardian.com: Almost half of the world’s food thrown away, report finds
[18] fao.org: The state of food security and nutrition in the world 2019
[19] nature.com: Water World and theguardian.com: How much water is needed to produce food and how much do we waste?
[20] odt.co.nz: ‘This is not the big one’: Virologist says prepare for worse