17 Sep 2020
Agriculture and Pandemics: the Correlation
We’re at the beginning of a new era of awakening and action or inaction, and in turn survival or disaster. With the globe becoming smaller and smaller through social media, the truth can no longer remain hidden, and with the pandemic affecting the entire world, it is time to take a look, with a new […]

We’re at the beginning of a new era of awakening and action or inaction, and in turn survival or disaster. With the globe becoming smaller and smaller through social media, the truth can no longer remain hidden, and with the pandemic affecting the entire world, it is time to take a look, with a new perspective, at what we have been doing to bring this upon ourselves. Because that is exactly what has happened.

Image Source: iStock

Our privileged attitude of being the owners of the planet with powers to do as we wish has ultimately brought us and our economy to our knees and how! With political will for doing the right thing almost non-existent, the responsibility lies heavily on the general populations to take individual action as well as start putting pressure on those in power. What action can each of us take? To know this we will have to delve into the topic of pandemics more deeply instead of looking at superficial facelifts.

Though everyone has been focusing on the symptom, like we always tend to do, a world without more pandemics is not going to be possible unless we address the root of the issue.

Let’s begin at the beginning

As per several reports, one teeny meeny virus affected one human being in the Huanan live market in Wuhan, China.

That one virus was enough to bring the world to its knees and to take away the livelihoods of millions of people the world over and all but destroy the economy. But how is it that this one little invisible-to-the-naked-eye virus landed up in that live market? Understanding this is key to understanding the origin so we can uproot it and get it out of our lives. Live markets, like Huanan, sell and slaughter live animals on site. These animals –puppies and their mothers, chickens, bats, pangolins, beavers, snakes, porcupines, baby crocodiles, lobsters, crabs, eels, etc, — are packed tightly in cages.

Scientists suspect that the virus may have jumped from a bat to a pangolin and then to a human. The bat and pangolin were in that market for sale as food. Clearly, understanding the interactions between animals and humans is critical in preventing outbreaks of zoonotic disease, because that’s what it is: a disease caused by a virus jumping to a human from another animal species.

It’s very clearly understood that all animals including humans carry viruses, bacteria, and fungi, and not just one or two but millions of them. A zoonosis like the present Covid-19 is an infectious disease caused by a pathogen that has jumped from a non-human animal to a human. In direct zoonosis, the disease is directly transmitted from other animals to humans, but transmission can also occur via an intermediate species which carry the disease pathogen without getting sick themselves.  When lots of different species of stressed wild animals are forced to live in such crowded and also filthy conditions, not at all like they would in nature, and where they cannot escape, they suffer tremendous stress and their immune system gets suppressed or broken. It is then easy for the virus to jump from one animal to another, and when humans come in close contact with them, the conditions are ideal for the transmission of zoonotic diseases.

Typically, the first infected human transmits the infectious agent to at least one other human, who, in turn, infects others, and in the global world that we live in today, it isn’t long before the virus has traversed oceans and skies into new lands to affect all it gets the chance to. Seventy percent of the new diseases that have emerged in humans over recent decades are of animal origin and, in part, directly related to the human quest for more animal-sourced food, according to the report, World Livestock 2013: Changing Disease Landscapes.

Moreover, a majority of the infectious diseases that have emerged in humans since the 1940s can be traced back to wildlife, notes an FAO report. For instance, it is likely that the SARS virus emerging in humans was first transmitted by bats to masked palm civets and eventually spilled over to humans via animal markets.  In other cases, the opposite occurs – livestock introduce pathogens into natural areas, affecting wildlife health. On the other hand, a growing body suggests that the spillover of zoonotic viruses – like Nipah, Swine ‘Flu, Ebola and, now, Covid-19, etc are often triggered by human destruction and exploitation of wildlife-rich habitats.

The crux of the theory known as the “ecology of disease” holds that increasing encroachment into biodiverse ecosystems creates situations where species interact with humans in the novel, intimate, and ultimately dangerous ways. In a forest, there are natural reservoirs, and hosts for viruses, for these kinds of pathogens. When we disrupt that, we can see the emergence of new infectious diseases. Many viruses exist harmlessly with their host animals in forests, because the animals have co-evolved with them. But humans can become unwitting hosts for pathogens when they venture into or change forest habitat.

Malaria—which kills over a million annually due to infection by Plasmodium parasites transmitted by mosquitoes—has long been suspected of going hand in hand with deforestation. In Brazil, while control efforts have dramatically reduced malaria transmission in the past—bringing 6 million cases a year in the 1940s down to just 50,000 by the 1960s—cases have since been steadily rising again in parallel with rapid forest clearing and expansion of agriculture. At the turn of the century, there were over 600,000 cases a year in the Amazon basin.

Clearing patches of forest appears to create ideal habitat along forest edges for the mosquito Anopheles darlingi—the most important transmitter of malaria in the Amazon—to breed. Through careful surveys in the Peruvian Amazon higher numbers of larvae were found in warm, partially shaded pools, the kind that form beside roads cut into forests and puddles where water is no longer taken up by trees.

What are the factors that make this pandemic a man-made phenomenon?

In our quest for food from animal sources, we are the cause of the ongoing expansion of agricultural lands into wild areas, and this coupled with a worldwide boom in livestock production, means that livestock and wildlife are more in contact with each other, and we ourselves are more in contact with animals than ever before. Encroaching cattle ranchers and livestock farmers burn up pristine forest, overgraze the pasture, then sell the land and move on, penetrating deeper into the jungle.

Very often as is seen in the Amazon, this land is sold to monoculture soy farmers, which exacerbates the problem due to loss of natural ecosystems. The scale of agriculture makes a difference, too – monocultures, be they soy or swine, are always more vulnerable to disease. Nipah had probably been in pigs before; but in the 80s and 90s an economic boom in Asia had created high demand for pork. Small-farms transformed into crowded, industrial-scale piggeries.

Viruses thrived in these conditions, proliferating easily, amplifying and then jumping to humans with terrifying lethality. Diseases can also occur when new habitats draw disease-carrying species out of the forest. For instance, in Liberia forest clearings for palm oil plantations attract hordes of typically forest-dwelling mice, lured there by the abundance of palm fruit around plantations and settlements.

Humans can contract Lassa virus when they come into contact with food or objects contaminated with faeces or urine of virus-carrying rodents or bodily fluids of infected people. In humans, the virus causes hemorrhagic fever—the same kind of illness triggered by the Ebola virus—and in Liberia killed 36 percent of infected people.

Moreover, food animal production has been transformed since the 1918 influenza pandemic which killed over 500 million people. Poultry and swine production has changed from small-scale methods to industrial-scale operations. There is substantial evidence of pathogen movement between and among these industrial facilities, release to the external environment, and exposure to farmworkers, which challenges the presumed assumption that modern poultry production is more bio-secure and bio-contained as compared with backyard or smallholder operations in preventing introduction and release of pathogens.

And many concerns have been raised over the relatively weak veterinary and public health infrastructure in many countries that follow this system of animal agriculture. Intensive production at large scale involves the congregation of large numbers of genetically identical animals. Strong biosecurity and health protection regimes like the use of vaccines and antibiotics in animal feed generally prevent infectious disease problems, but major outbreaks occur when a pathogen performs a virulence jump, escapes the vaccine used, acquires resistance to antibiotics, or travels along the food chain.

India has the largest number of cows in the world, which have biochemistry and DNA that is singularly similar to ours. But that doesn’t mean cows pose no risk. Researchers believe that the measles virus probably jumped into humans from cattle thousands of years ago, when they were first domesticated, and Rift Valley Fever in Africa is predominantly found in cattle but can be passed to humans via mosquitoes.

But how can we feed the 74 billion plus land animals that we raise for food for a human population of 7.4 billion without disturbing more and more forests?

Each of these animals consumes a significantly larger amount of plants produced than any individual human being could consume. We need to clear ever more land to grow crops for the growing number of animals in the meat, poultry, egg, and dairy industries and it is this rapid growth of animal agriculture that is the leading cause of deforestation. 70% of the Amazon Rainforest has already been destroyed and is now occupied by pastures and feed crops. One of the main crops grown in the rainforest is soybeans used specifically for animal feed and not humans. 70% of it is used to feed animals raised for food, and only 6% is used to feed humans directly. The rest is used for the production of soybean oil.

Tropical deforestation and forest clearing not only bring humans in closer contact with wild animals increasing the possibility of zoonotic diseases but they also have adverse consequences that contribute to climate change, biodiversity loss, flooding, and soil degradation. It is clear that it will be much easier to feed a human population on just plant-based foods instead of from animal origin. The land required to grow plant food for a human population of 7.4 billion will be much less than that required for a ten-fold animal population that needs a much higher amount of plant products to fulfill their basic nutritional requirement. This will in turn also drastically reduce human-animal contact and so the risk of zoonotic disease.

However, disease emergence in livestock is not specific to large-scale, intensive systems. Smallholder livestock systems – which tend to involve animals roaming freely over large areas, but still in relatively high densities – often facilitate the disease spread, both among local animal populations and overbroad distances. Backyard livestock farming in the rural areas of countries like India are also an important to interface. Generally, these are pastoral people having their animals – poultry, a few goats, cows – just in the backyard of their houses. These are the people who tend to interact more with animals. Viruses don’t really look for new hosts to infect. They just look for the ability to enter a cell to replicate. And they find it easy in a host that doesn’t have the defense to stop it from doing so.

This situation of traditional farming is exacerbated by the destruction of forestland by these grazing animals. Deforestation due to grazing pressure in India cannot be ignored because the rapidly increasing population of human and livestock as well as successive years of drought and famine have created enormous grazing and biotic pressure on forests. Countless species of flora and fauna are thus disappearing faster rate than ever in the history of forests.

And sadly, if the populace living near the fringes of forests are unable to meet their biomass demands, no amount stringent policing — which is anyway severely lacking — can prevent them from encroachment into forests. Hence, there is no option but to provide alternatives. We direly need to move away from marketing animal products as a source of food and shift to a more plant based system for human consumption.

What this means is that we cannot deal with human health, animal health, and ecosystem health in isolation from each other – we have to look at them together, and address the drivers of disease emergence, persistence, and spread, rather than simply fighting back against diseases after they emerge. So, now that we have understood the root of the cause, can we start working on the elimination of it to ensure that we don’t suffer from such a pandemic again? Actually, we should have started a long time ago because it isn’t as if we didn’t know. 

Reputable bodies such as WHO, Centres for Disease Control and Prevention have warned that most emerging infectious diseases come from animals. The American Public Health Association some years ago even called for a moratorium on factory farming. But these warnings have been ignored. The most significant way to reduce the biotic pressure on forests is to start socio-economic development programs to generate newer forms of employment for humans away from animal agriculture and of course a focus on plant-based foods like fruits, vegetables, pulses, and grains for human consumption.

Four or five months ago, pandemics did not feel like an urgent issue, people did not feel vulnerable. Now the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting people and us – it’s affecting the stock market, our quality of life, our health, and our loved ones – now this feels urgent, now we feel vulnerable. It’s in moments like this that real change can happen. The key is ensuring that this crisis catalyses societal and environmental solutions instead of reinforcing entrenched irrationality.

The paradox is that we’re very risk averse but irrational in risk assessment. We value gross domestic product (GDP) and ever-growing economies without acknowledging that unsustainable exploitation of natural resources has become the norm and that natural capital is of no consequence in our human economies.

Are we ready to accept that economic growth has come at a huge expense? An expense of life itself. And are we ready to bring in new systems of equitable wealth distribution were growing the economy is not at the center of all decisions? The onus is now on us to bring pressure on governments where political will is lacking. The question is are we up to it? Are we ready to act on the knowledge we have to ensure that such pandemics don’t become a recurring phenomenon and we just learn to live with it…and suffering and death? The answer to that lies with YOU!

(The views expressed in the article are the author’s own. Let Me Breathe neither endorses nor is responsible for them.) 

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