Why do big farms produce big flu?

Why do big farms produce big flu?

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In a series of articles, we will analyze the relationship between agribusiness, the capitalist system and the spread of contagious diseases worldwide.

Beyond quarantine

The spread of COVID-19 as a pandemic worldwide has caused tens of thousands of deaths. Without a doubt, it is a unique event in human history. Not because there have been no contagious and virulent diseases before, but because of the speed with which it spread across the planet and because of the fact that it confines approximately one-third of humanity to some form of "social distancing."

The unique nature of this situation does not make, under any point of view, its main trigger, the coronavirus, an unforeseen and inexplicable agent. Since the World Health Organization (WHO) defined COVID-19 as a pandemic, many epidemiologists, virologists, and biologists have taken center stage, giving explanations and opinions about the prospects for how the spread will continue. However, something that makes me particularly uncomfortable is that very few have analyzed the structural causes of the appearance of a virus that adds up, placing it at the top of a worrying list of infectious diseases: 2009 (Swine Flu), 2013 (H7N9) , 2014 (Ebola), 2015 (H5N2), 2016 (Zika). Let's go, then, to that relationship from the elaborations of Rob Wallace.

A non-“corporate” science

Rob Wallace is an American-born evolutionary biologist and public health phylogeographer. He is a member of the Institute for Global Studies at the University of Minnesota. In 2016 he published the bookBig Farms Make Big Flu ("Big farms produce big flu"), which is structured in seven parts based on a series of essays in each of them, written since 2009. According to his own words, the book focuses on issues such as the flu as a biocultural object and socio-political antagonist, but it also delves into agriculture, other infectious diseases, evolution, ecological resilience, dialectical biology, scientific practice, and revolution (1). In this dossier we publish one of a series of articles that we will write reviewing the book and, from now on, we invite you to read it.

Wallace's book is extremely interesting both for an audience specialized in biology and for those who, like the one who writes this article, are not and want to know the subject better. The author proposes an interdisciplinary approach to biology in general and epidemiological study in particular.

“It is in this context that I have devoted my entire career thus far to applying my training in evolutionary biology to the study of how infectious diseases operate on a world intricately socialized by human history. Humans created physical and social environments, on land and in the sea, that have radically altered the trajectories along which pathogens evolve and spread ”(2).

In a word, infectious diseases do not operate in a vacuum, they arise, develop and are controlled (or not) in close interrelation with the geographical environment (natural and social). In the first series of articles of 2009, Wallace analyzes the case of Swine Flu, which that year became a global pandemic. Arguing against the approach that the WHO was taking to her, she states that

“In fact, influenza can be defined by its molecular structure, by genetics, by virology, by pathogenesis, by biological host, clinical course, treatment, modes of transmission, and phylogenetics. That work is, of course, essential. But by limiting research to these topics, critical mechanisms that are operating at other broad levels of socio-ecological organization are lost. These mechanisms include how livestock are acquired and organized across time and space. In other words, we need to go to the specific decisions that particular governments and companies make that promote the emergence of virulent flu. Thinking only virologically makes these explanations disappear, very much in favor of the pig industry ”(3).

A warning like this is very topical, science and universities cannot study COVID-19 without paying special attention to those ‘broad levels of socio-ecological organization’ that determine the appearance and spread of infectious diseases.

An industry of viruses

According to Wallace, the emergence of a burgeoning series of new influenza subtypes capable of infecting humans appears to be the result of a globalization concomitant with the industrial model of poultry and pig production.

“Since the 1970s, vertically integrated ranching has expanded from its origins in the southeastern United States across the globe. Our world is surrounded by cities of millions of monoculture birds and pigs, close together, an almost perfect ecology for the evolution of multiple strains of influenza ”(4).

How is this relationship explained? Viruses are limited in their pathogenic virulence (mortality). Pathogens have to avoid developing such an ability to harm their hosts (animals or humans) that they kill them before they can jump to another host and thus destroy their chain of transmission. Wallace explains that viruses display agency (although he apologizes for the anthropomorphism) and if they "know" that their next host is close to the current one, they can develop their virulence without major problems, as they can quickly infect the next host. The higher the transmission speed, the lower the cost of virulence. If we have hundreds of thousands of pigs and poultry on factory farms, one attached to the other, the ability of a virus to infect rapidly is obvious.

We move to one of the most important theoretical elements to think about this problem. Wallace cites some of Marx's analyzes of the commodity already present in Volume I ofCapital. It refers to the fact that, according to Marx, capitalists do not produce goods because they are useful (that is, they have use value) but because the value is objectified in them (which must then be realized in the market). That is the most important characteristic of the commodity for the capitalists. Changing the appearance of any merchandise to attract consumers may seem like it has a negligible effect, but what happens when, in the quest to maximize profits, what is being modified is not a car or an armchair, but living organisms that breathe?What happens is that by industrializing the production of animals, the production of pests is also industrialized. For example, traditionally the production of geese was carried out during a season of the year, outside of which, the strains of influenza present in these animals are removed naturally because they are not in contact with many other geese in the same space and not being being marketed. Currently, they are produced throughout the year without interruption, as is the case with pigs and chickens. In other words, we are facing one of the ruptures of the natural balance by agribusiness. I give just one more example. Taking data that Wallace mentions in his book, the United States went from producing 300 million chickens in average flocks of 70 in 1929, to producing 6 billion in average flocks of 30,000 in 1992 (5). Keeping an average of 30,000 chickens side by side creates the enormous possibility for viruses to spread to an entire flock very easily. In addition, the industrialization of animal production has an absolutely international character, live animals and food produced with them are transported thousands of kilometers around the world.

This astonishing overcrowding was produced by the so-called “Livestock Revolution” that transformed chicken farming from a domestic activity or, at most, small producers, to a vertically integrated activity where the same company controls and concentrates all the points of production under one roof. Companies like Tyson, Holly Farms and Perdue led the new stage in the second postwar period.

China, as the epicenter of infectious diseases, deserves a special mention. With the capitalist restoration begun by Deng Xiaoping in the late 1970s, the "Special Economic Zones" were the recipient of a huge amount of Foreign Direct Investment (FDI). In the 90s, it was already the second country with the highest FDI behind the US, at the same time that poultry production grew at 7% per year. In 2008, investment bank Goldman Sachs bought ten poultry farms in Hunan and Fujian for $ 300 million and also owns significant shares in large meat-producing corporations in China and Hong Kong. These last data are important to refute the arguments of typetrumpists that define the coronavirus as a "Chinese virus". Since the large North American corporations not only created the productive model of agribusiness that led to the massive spread of infectious diseases, but many of them have significant investments in the production of industrialized animals in different parts of the world. Not to mention the responsibility of North American capital in the overcrowded proletarianization of the millions of small Chinese producers and peasants who, as a result of the combination of capitalist restoration, invasion of foreign investment in agribusiness, and land privatization, were dispossessed of it.

What to do?

If we recognize the danger of continuing with an agribusiness model that industrializes animals and therefore industrializes viruses, how can we change it? What are the socio-ecological balances that we must rebuild?

“In the long term, we must end the livestock industry as we know it. Influences emerge through globalized networks of corporate feedlot production and trade, beyond where specific strains first evolve. With herds mixed from region to region - transforming spatial distance into just-in-time convenience - multiple strains of influenza are continually being introduced into locations full of susceptible animals. Such exposure can serve as fuel for the evolution of viral virulence. By overlapping each other through cross-national agribusiness supply chain links, influenza strains also increase the possibility of exchanging genomic segments to produce recombination for a potential pandemic ”(6).

The livestock industry as we know it today is incompatible with public health, in addition to causing enormous ecological damage and providing poor quality food. Many of the millions of people who need food in cities (this is the argument of agribusiness advocates), would not need it if they had not been evicted from their land. However, the way out Wallace proposes is not the end of global trade or a return to the small family farm, but rather to create multiple sheltered scales of agriculture. The author also takes proposals from the studies carried out by Richard Levins in Cuba.

“Rather than having to decide between large-scale industrial production or an a priori approximation of 'small is beautiful', we view the scale of agriculture as dependent on social and natural conditions, with planning units attached to many units of production. Different scales of agriculture must be adjusted to watersheds, climatic zones and topography, population density, the distribution of available resources, and the mobility of pests and their enemies. The random scraps of peasant agriculture, constrained by land tenure and the destructive landscapes of the livestock industry, will both be replaced by a planned mosaic of land uses in which each space contributes its own products but also assists. in production to other spaces: forests provide wood, fuel, fruits, nuts and honey but also regulate water flows, modulate the climate up to a distance of ten times the height of trees, create a special microclimate in favor of the Wind from the edges, they offer shelter for livestock and workers and provide a habitat for natural enemies of pests and plantation pollinators. There will be no more specialized farms producing just one thing ”(7).

Of course, models like these are opposed by the business lobby, much of which has positions of leadership and control in capitalist states. Wallace portrays how lobbyists have sought to discredit the investigations of his group and others that have tried to show the complicities between agribusiness, the political system and capitalism. Fighting to end this model is fighting against a system where human life is worth less than capitalist profit, in view of another social system where humanity develops in harmony with the nature to which it belongs. We invite you to continue reading about this challenge in the next article.


(1) Rob Wallace, Big Farms Make Big Flu: Dispatches on infectious disease, agribusiness, and the nature of science. (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2016), 12
(2) Idem.
(3) Idem, 39
(4) Idem, 38
(5) Idem, 61-62
(6) Idem, 80-81
(7) Idem, 82-83

Source: La Izquierda Diario

Video: Big farms make big flu: discussion with Rob Wallace (February 2023).