Hog farms and feed lots – risky business

“If science is a “commitment to truth” shall we cite all the historical non-truths perpetuated by scientists? Of course not. It’s not science vs. Philosophy … It’s Science + Philosophy. Elevate your Thinking and Consciousness. When you measure include the measurer.”MC Hammer

People were pretty astonished when founding father of rap MC Hammer posted a link to an article entitled The Visibility of Philosophy of Science in the Sciences 1980 – 2018 on his Twitter feed. One of his followers responded: “philosophy is a flirtation with ideas – science is a commitment to truth.” 

MC Hammer’s reply that “when you measure, include the measurer”, makes a good epigraph for this collection of essays and articles entitled The Dead Epidemiologist.

One of the book’s crucial points is that the important debate in the Covid-19 Pandemic is not that between anti-science conspiracy theorists and anti-vaxxers and “real science”.  It is, rather, between those scientists – from many disciplines including epidemiology – who understand the pandemic as an inevitable result, an aspect if you like, of life and society in globalised capitalism – and those who we see on TV daily, with their political bosses.

Even the best of these public scientists – even Fauci so admired for standing up to Trump – have made no attempt to offer any kind of joined-up explanation. They look at the pandemic as a one-off. They make no effort to communicate this truth: the virus was inevitable, it is not over, politicians had been warned, and until a transformation of economy, agriculture and land use is completed, pandemics will be with us.

We are constantly being told the “the COVID-19 pandemic shocked the world”. Why did it? Pandemic has been a way of life for decades:In 2019 1.7 million people became newly infected with HIV in 2019. 690,000 died from AIDS-related illness and almost 2.5 million are surviving using retroviral treatments.

– Since the pandemic began, 75.7 million people have become infected with the HIV virus (up to the end of 2019), and 32.7 million people have died.

– And author Rob Wallace and his collaborators point out that as well as HIV, “in this century we have had H1N1, H7N9, SARS, MERS, Ebola Makona, Zika, and a variety of lesser viruses emerging almost annually”. These are all zoonotic viruses.

We are told that the Covid-19 virus came from a wild meat market in China – but that doesn’t tell us the extent to which so called wild meats have been commodified as a result of the “commodify everything” paradigm.

Not only in China but in African countries too, and elsewhere, wild meat that would in the past been an occasional food has been turned into a profit-making commodity, widely available and giving increased opportunities for zoonotic viruses with the right mutation, to cross the species barrier – which is actually flimsier than people think. And access to it has grown with the clearance of millions of acres of jungle and forest, whose loss is also one of the main drivers of climate change.

So when politicians say they are “following the science”, we have to join with MC Hammer and say: “When you measure, include the measurer.”

What they actually mean is they are asking their public health advisors to help them to close the stable door after the horse has bolted, and join in a narrative that claims we will be able to get the virus under control and then return to “normal life”.

But the truth, as this eclectic collection of commentaries, articles, and interviews reveals is that pandemic IS “normal life”.

Global capital has driven the deforestation, industrial agriculture and urban development that has exposed us to new pathogens. If the virus has a source it is not Yunnan but the boardrooms of giant corporations.

The culprits are

• the retail corporations whose main aim is to drive profits up by getting cheap food on the shelf, paying less and less to producers;

• the “cafos” (concentrated animal feeding operations) who now dominate livestock rearing in the USA and South America, and which have virtually wiped out the mixed farming family farm in the American mid-west;

• the investment houses and sovereign wealth funds who poured money into a global land grab when other commodities like property were worthless after the crash of 2008. The result of that has been to drive millions of peasant farmers off their land and turn it over to large scale monoculture farming of crops for export.

• the states and governments who have colluded in the creation of a system of production that is responsible for the destruction of eco-systems

As a result, it is entirely likely that the next pandemic will start on an industrial farm or feedlot.

“Megafarm conditions select for a wide array of deadly diseases that belie industry’s self-absolving claims of ‘biosecurity’. Among recent emergent and re-emergent farm and foodbourne pathogens of increasing deadliness and outbreak extend are African swine fever, Campylobacter, Covid-19, Cryptosporidium, Syclospora, Ebola Reston, E.coli O157:H7, foot and mouth disease, hepatitis E, Listeria, Nipa virus,Q fever, Salmonella, Vibrio, Yersinia and a variet of novel influenza A variants inluding H1)1, H1N2v, H3N2v, H5N1, H5N2, H5Nx, H6,N1, H7N1, H7N3, H7N7, H7N9 and H9N2.”

It’s an alphabet soup of contagion, and there’s no use hoping the antibiotics, fed routinely to livestock in the giant feedlots, will save us from the bacterial infections on this list:  “Scientific evidence demonstrates that overuse of antibiotics in animals can contribute to the emergence of antibiotic resistance,” says Dr Kazuaki Miyagishima, Director of the Department of Food Safety and Zoonoses at World Health Organisation which has called for an urgent halt to routine use of antibiotics.

As Wallace and colleagues say, allowing foodlots with hundreds or even thousands of beasts, creates vast monocultures, and “removes immunogenetic firebreaks” that more diverse populations, in smaller farms with greater separation between livestock, used to provide:

“Larger herd sizes and greater densities select for increases in rates of transmission and recurrent infections across pathogen strains. High throughouput offers a continually renewed supply of suceptibles at barn, farm and regional levels removing the demographic cap on the evolution of pathogen deadliness. Housing such concentrations rewards those strains that can burn through them fastest. As the persistence of acute pathogens is also selected for in industrial livestock at population sizes of orders of magnitude less than in humans, such production can amplify disease spillover into human populations.”

And there are things happening that you and I would never even think of. Like the fact that the age at which livestock are slaughtered is coming down and down, which “may select for greater pathogen virulence and viremia able to survive more robust immune systems”.

As we confront the terrible human results of the current phase of pandemic – measured in deaths, grief, hunger, unemployment, systems breakdown and long-term health conditions – we can be sure that it suits the capitalist class to see us wrangling over anti-vaccination and other Covid-19 conspiracies.

Behind that smokescreen they can recommit themselves to business as usual. Not as an example of their power really, because their whole system is currently on life support. It is because they can’t do anything else than try to maintain the status quo – even as ordinary lives crumble around them. And if we are busy looking the other way – they will get away with it.

Wallace and others have launched Pandemic Research for the People, which aims to challenge the scientific approaches that limit research to topics that do not go beyond, or challenge, the existing system of economy and society.

The first five questions they ask ordinary people to answer are:

  1. What is the best way to form and safely operate neighborhood brigades checking up on people house-to-house while we all quarantine?
  2. How might we mass-produce and supply people with enough antivirals, medical equipment, and personal protective equipment to survive the outbreak?
  3. How do pathogens such as COVID-19, Ebola, and Zika emerge out of neoliberal land grabs in the first place?
  4. Could we plan agricultural landscapes that self-regulate in such a way that the deadliest pathogens are far less likely to emerge in the first place?
  5. What strategies might we best pursue to break agribusiness and pharmaceutical control of governments and our political economy?

If you’ve got answers to these, please do share them here, and also send them to the research project. Even if you don’t think they’re relevant now to this pandemic, they sure will be to the next one.

Some useful links:

You can contribute to the UK-based People’s Covid Inquiry here: https://www.peoplescovidinquiry.com/







Rob Wallace is an evolutionary epidemiologist with the Agroecology and Rural Economics Research Corps. He is author of Big Farms Make Big Flu and co-author of Clear-Cutting Disease Control: Capital-Led Deforestation, Public Health Austerity, and Vector-Borne Infection. He has consulted with the Food and Agriculture Organization and the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention.

The Dead Epidemiologist, Rob Wallace, Monthly Review Press, 978-1-58367-902-9 UK £14.99