Rob Wallace in Dead Epidemiologists shows that the Covid pandemic is not random, but a product of recent change in industrialised agribusiness, argues Elaine Graham-Leigh

Rob Wallace, Dead Epidemiologists. On the origins of COVID-19 (Monthly Review Press 2020), 260pp.

To say that the Tory government’s response to Covid-19 has been disastrous is merely to state the obvious. Their unwillingness to take decisive action at the right time, coupled with their ability to contemplate tens of thousands of deaths with equanimity, has earned them a special place even in the annals of Tory incompetence and self-serving cynicism. Frighteningly, though, these failures are specific neither to the UK nor to Covid-19. As Wallace points out, the twenty-first century has seen new strains emerging of African swine fever, Campylobacter, Cryptosporidium, Cyclospora, Ebola, E-coli, foot-and-mouth disease, hepatitis E, Listeria, Nipah virus, Q fever, Salmonella, Vibrio, Yersinia, Zika and numerous influenza variants, ‘and near-nothing real was done about any of them’ (p.22).

Wallace, like Mike Davis and others, has been warning us about the coming plague for years. In his introduction here, Wallace recounts how, when Covid-19 arose, he remembered that he had been worried enough by avian influenza H7N9 in 2013 to have bought an N95 mask. He found it stashed in the back of a cupboard: ‘So out-of-step Rob circa 2013 helped sourly vindicated Rob 2020’ (p.14). Wallace’s mask preparedness was an example of individual changes in behaviour to limit the spread of the virus. People’s failure to take these sorts of measures are often blamed for the virus continuing to circulate, but Wallace is clear that Covid-19 is a systemic problem, not an issue of individual compliance. Despite more awareness than most of the threat Covid-19 poses, Wallace still flew to a conference in Jackson, Mississippi in early March 2020, illustrating that the need to earn a living can militate against even virologists taking the precautions needed to suppress the virus.

Agribusiness and pandemic

Comparisons of Covid-19 to past pandemics like the Black Death or the Spanish Flu of 1918-19 have provided important context throughout the current pandemic. It is clearly true that, as Nicholas Christakis recently argued, ‘what’s happening to us may seem to so many people to be alien and unnatural, but plagues are not new to our species – they’re just new to us.’ In this sense, we could come to see Covid-19 as just another in a long line of diseases to which, despite all our scientific and technological advances, we are still subject. Wallace and colleagues show here though that that take would be a mistake. The rise of so many new viral strains is not ‘natural’ or unconnected to human activity, but is a direct result of the practices of global agribusiness. Along with pigs and chickens, agribusiness is farming viruses.

This is not simply a question of the industrialisation of agriculture, which obviously predates the last two decades, but is a result of the way in which the entire sector has been largely swallowed up by a few, enormous multinational conglomerates. This has led to the commodification of every part of the food production process and to significant changes in how animal farming is carried out. These developments have happened largely invisibly to most of us. While we know that animals are being raised in appalling conditions, the extent to which ‘vast changes have been imposed on how food animals are raised (and what they even are)’ has not been so apparent (p.110).

The scale of the industrial meat production lots and the concentration of animals being housed there can be mind-boggling. Wallace cites the example of China’s Yangxiang Co Ltd’s Guangxi pig production operation, where the company is adding to its existing two seven-storey breeding operations a 13-storey ‘hog hotel’, which would house 1000-head per floor. In these huge industrial lots, agribusiness has created the ideal conditions for pathogens to develop and spread: large numbers of genetically similar animals, packed in high densities, in poor conditions so that they will have a depressed immune response.

As if this wasn’t enough, the takeover by agribusiness of all sectors of agricultural production then adds other ways in which the viruses can spread and recombine, through practices like the large conglomerates sending out animals to be raised on smaller farm lots, before they are taken back to the industrial operations. The advantage to the agribusiness concerns is that in this way they offload the risk to the smaller producers that not all the animals will survive to maturity. The advantage to the viruses is that strains from different lots get to meet and recombine.

There is still considerable debate about the specific origins of Covid-19. Wallace however argues that it isn’t really important whether it arose from the increasingly commodified exotic animal trade, from bat guano trading, or from something else. ‘Instead, we need to readjust our conceptual sights on the processes by which increasingly capitalized landscapes turn living organisms into commodities and entire production chains – animal, producer, processor, and retailer – into disease vectors’ (p.87).

In his Big Farms Make Big Flu, Wallace argued that we should call flu strains not after the country in which they were identified or the species they came from, but after the company who owned the facility where it first emerged to infect humans. Talking about for example the ‘Bernard Matthews flu’ would put the focus correctly on the real source of the problem. Here, he argues that the disease process we have seen with Covid-19 is so much a part of capitalist agriculture that we should see the disease centres not as the places which house the actual production, but as the centres of capital. We should therefore be talking about the London or the New York coronavirus. We have been exposed to it as a direct result of agribusiness treating ‘selecting for a virus that might kill a billion people … as a worthy risk’ (p.34).

An offended response from a spokesperson for an agribusiness multinational here would include a protest that they take viral developments in their production lots very seriously and have a range of measures to contain it. It is indeed true, as Wallace points out, that many animal production lots have disease control measures for workers entering and leaving and that some production, for example sterile pig rearing, claims to be inherently disease-free. Some of these measures appear to impose even greater suffering on the animals concerned, with little effect of the development or transmission of viral strains. Other measures simply outsource the blame for viruses to the workers, such as the way that various companies insist on the right to be able to search their workers’ homes for evidence of viral infection. This is from an industry which has shown itself prepared to sacrifice workers’ safety if it might get in the way of profits, as in an example Wallace gives of a worker in a meat-packing plant who was ordered to stop wearing a mask on the packing floor as it made his co-workers anxious. He contracted Covid-19 and died.

Capitalist production and alienation

Attempts to address the viral risks posed by industrial animal agriculture by making it more industrial, by modifying the animals themselves still further, would seem though to be digging us further into the hole into which global agribusiness has put us. It’s therefore not surprising that some argue that we should stop animal agriculture altogether. Lab grown meat, we’re told, is a way of escaping both the disease load of animal agriculture and from its climate change impacts, while avoiding the more unpalatable aspects of compulsory universal veganism. For Wallace, however, this is not a solution.

He points out first of all that stopping animal agriculture would involve the outright prohibition of many people’s lifestyles, from First Nations people in the Canadian Arctic to herders in the Sahel. ‘Banning animal agriculture means banning animal agriculture in this world, and not in another world, which means, we should be clear, banning all actual instances where people are engaged in animal agriculture. What should happen to the many millions of people whose modes of life are considered inappropriate?’ (p.147).

Removing animal agriculture from the landscape would also involve removing large numbers of animals from pasture, a development which would not necessarily have the benign environmental effects that are sometimes attributed to such a step. It is not as simple as ‘grassland bad, forest good’. When tree cover is allowed to take over, Wallace comments, this can cause a drop in biodiversity, not a recovery. Grazing animals are a necessary part of ecosystems, so much so for example, there are proposals to reintroduce herbivores to the US Great Plains to improve the soil and biodiversity.

Understanding the complexity of removing large numbers of domesticated species from the globe shows that the environmental consequences are neither simple nor easy to anticipate. This is not the only reason to view the putative replacement of animal farming with lab grown meat with scepticism. The arguments which see lab grown meat as our saviour here are the logical development of a view which sees it as desirable to separate humanity from the natural world in order to preserve it. Domesticated animal species, as part of the effect that humanity has on nature, here are contaminants rather than a necessary part of ecosystems.

It is, however, that alienation of human society from the natural world, as a result of capitalism, which allows animals and crops to be turned into just so many commodities. The development of lab grown meat is in many ways an obvious endpoint of the way in which animals raised for meat are already modified by agribusiness to be as profitable as possible. Shifting from raising chickens which fatten quickly because they don’t know when they’ve had enough food to creating chicken meat without actual chickens at all is not a turn away from the ruinous agribusiness practices of the last twenty years as much as it is an intensification of them.

Meat, Wallace argues, is not one thing, with one uniform and inescapable effect on the environment. The ecological impact of animal farming is the impact of the structure of industrial production carried out by agribusiness. The production methods and their effects are not divisible from the structures in which they are applied. In the same way, lab grown meat and similar technologies are, Wallace points out, ‘as inseparable from their funders as the looms were from the mill owners in the age of the Luddites’ (p.155).

Put in this way, it is obvious that the solution to the diseases and environmental destruction caused by animal agriculture cannot be to do more of the same, only more so. Wallace suggests that rather than to hi-tech solutions, we should be looking at the programmes of farmers’ movements like La Via Campesina, in its calls for a return of power and autonomy to local farmers from corporate interests. The question then becomes, though, whether there is an achievable reformist goal of returning to the global agricultural system of, say, thirty or fifty years ago. While such a roll-back would be technically possible, it may be that politically, there is no path to ameliorate the viruses of capitalism other than to eradicate capitalism itself.

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Elaine Graham-Leigh

Elaine has been an environmental campaigner for more than a decade. She speaks and writes widely on issues of climate change and social justice, and is a member of Counterfire. She is the author of A Diet of Austerity: Class, Food and Climate Change and Marx and the Climate CrisisHer sci-fi novel, The Caduca, is out now from The Conrad Press.