Issue No. 3 | March 2020

Of pandemics and profits: How industrial agriculture is exposing humanity to killer outbreaks

Multibillion-dollar global agricultural industries are behind the pandemic-producing factory farms.        

Oil palm plantations and deforestation are linked to the spillover of deadly pathogens from forests to human populations (Photo credit: Ulet Ifansasti/Greenpeace)

COVID-19 has already infected more than half a million people in 199 countries and territories worldwide. Many have resorted to lockdowns and quarantines of entire communities and countries, desperate to contain the rapid spread of the disease that has already killed more than a quarter of a million. By the time you finished reading this article, a hundred new cases may have already been confirmed; several additional deaths may have already been recorded.

The grim reality is that humanity is exposed to global pandemics today more than ever. According to a 2008 study published by the Nature journal, the number of new infectious diseases that emerged every decade between 1940 and 2004 had almost quadrupled. Another study published in 2014 by The Royal Society said that the number of outbreaks of infectious diseases per decade between 1980 and 2013 had more than tripled.

Like the COVID-19, many of these diseases are zoonotic, i.e. caused by viruses, bacteria and other harmful germs that jump from animals to humans. It is estimated that some 60% of new infectious diseases that harm humans are from animals, mostly forest-dwelling wildlife. What’s more, about 1.6 million viral species in mammal and bird populations are said to be still unknown, with as much as half of them potentially harmful to people. That’s a massive army of animal microbes waiting to be unleashed on human populations.

But the important question is why are these animal pathogens that for centuries have been harmlessly contained and regulated by nature now pose a dreadful threat to humanity? Some blame the wildlife trade; the official narrative on the COVID-19 outbreak puts a live animal market in China as ground zero. While transmission of diseases from animals to humans in such settings is likely, it does not tell the whole story of our exposure to pandemics. If anything, it merely paints pandemics as unfortunate spontaneous events rather than a structural phenomenon.

The real answer lies in understanding how the global capitalist mode of production, including in agriculture, has destroyed complex ecosystems in a manner that is both systematic and unsparing, and radically altered nature in ways that will maximize corporate profits. It lies in exposing how this system of production monopolized land and resources in the hands of big capital, and in the process drove people already in the margins of subsistence further into the hinterlands. 

Deforestation has disrupted the natural habitat of wildlife such as bats and monkeys which host viruses known or suspected to have caused deadly outbreaks like HIV, Ebola and SARS (a relative of COVID-19). In a recently published article, the National Geographic noted that: “Over the past two decades, a growing body of scientific evidence suggests that deforestation, by triggering a complex cascade of events, creates the conditions for a range of deadly pathogens… to spread to people.”  The same article, citing a 2015 study by the US-based non-profit Ecohealth Alliance, also pointed out that one in three outbreaks of new and emerging diseases are linked to land-use change like deforestation.

Globally, only about 15% of the world’s forest cover remain intact, according to a research by the World Resources Institute (WRI). The rest are either cleared, degraded or fragmented to give way to mostly industrial farms and cattle ranges as well as mining operations.

Industrial plantations are among the biggest drivers of deforestation, clearing away huge swaths of biodiversity in favor of monoculture mass production of raw materials for industries. Oil palm plantations, for instance, which supply ingredients for various consumer products from lipstick to ice cream, are being linked by experts to the spillover of deadly pathogens from forests to human populations. These plantations are mainly export-oriented, serving the raw material needs of mostly industrialized countries.

The palm oil industry’s encroachment and deep-cutting into forests has breached natural barriers to the evolution and spread of specific pathogens, noted an article published in the environmental news platform EcoWatch. Industrial land grabs and monocrops cause a shift in equilibrium between animal populations and viruses in forests, which increases the probability of spill over to alternative hosts.

In a commentary published in 2014, researchers from the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and other academic institutions, raised the possibility that the Ebola outbreak in West Africa that began in 2013 could have been triggered by the disruption of fruit bat populations by oil palm plantations. Some species of fruit bats are considered the natural reservoirs of the Ebola virus. The World Health Organization (WHO), in a separate report, also articulated the same concern – that forest loss in Africa brought the Ebola-bearing bat species into closer contact with human settlements.

Inside factory farms, animals are raised in cramped quarters, susceptible to repeated viral infections (Charlie Riedel/AP Photo)

Another process by which animal viruses break out and become pandemics for humans is the shift to large-scale, industrial animal farm operations. Like industrial plantations, industrial animal farms also lead to massive deforestation. According to the World Bank, for example, cattle ranching (or the export-driven beef production) accounted for 91% of cleared forests in the Amazon between 1970 and 2004, a trend that continues until today.

The current model of industrial animal farms likewise creates the perfect conditions for zoonotic diseases like swine flu, bird flu mad cow disease and their future mutations to rapidly spread and become pandemics.

Inside these factory farms, “animals are raised in cramped quarters, in constant contact with their waste, and fed corn and soybeans in place of the forage for which their digestive systems evolved,” noted an article by an environmental health expert published in The Atlantic. Further, the animals are subjected to constant respiratory exposure to high concentration of gases like ammonia, hydrogen sulfide and others. All these leave them susceptible to repeated viral infections and mutations that can be efficiently transmitted to humans.

As the landmark report on industrial animal farm production by the Pew Research Center in 2008 warned, “the continual cycling of viruses…in large herds or flocks [will] increase opportunities for the generation of novel virus through mutation or recombinant events that could result in more efficient human-to-human transmission.”

From plantations to industrial animal farms, the most vulnerable and exposed to infections are the low-paid agricultural workers and the adjacent poor rural communities, who have no immediate and reliable access to health and medical services to be diagnosed and treated. But authorities are only alerted of possible outbreaks when the infection has already reached the cities or urban centers. This is how pandemics explode.

Multibillion-dollar global agricultural industries are behind the pandemic-producing factory farms. And in every outbreak of a disease, after countless infections and deaths, there arises opportunity for another multibillion-dollar industry to profit – Big Pharma. Capitalism’s quest for profits is making us sick, and then it profits further from our disease. ###

#NoLandNoLife Features discuss recent developments, events, and trends on land and resource grabbing and related human rights issues in the region as well as the factors and forces that drive it. Send us your feedback at nolandnolife@panap.net.