big farms

From Ebola to swine flu, multinationals and their capitalist production systems are the real causes of new epidemic diseases, argues Elaine Graham-Leigh


Rob Wallace, Big Farms Make Big Flu. Dispatches on Infectious Disease, Agribusiness and the Nature of Science (Monthly Review Press 2016), 456pp.

During the nineteenth century, three US presidents died in office, or shortly after it, from drinking the water in the White House. This was probably because that water was drawn downstream from the marsh where the White House’s ‘nightsoil’ was dumped, including that of the slaves who helped build it. For Rob Wallace, this is therefore an ‘epiphenomenon of empire’, as ‘on what was a glorified plantation, growing not crops but imperial designs alienated from people and places alike, enslaved men and women were obligated to kill their masters bucket by bucket’ (Big Farms, p.322) It is also a demonstration of the structural nature of infectious disease. Far from natural occurrences unrelated to human activity, the diseases we catch are as much a product of the system in which we live as the food we buy.

The focus of the essays in Rob Wallace’s Big Farms Make Big Flu is agribusiness, specifically, the role of industrial farming systems in the spread of deadly influenza viruses like H1N1. It is well known that flu viruses spread to humans from other species like pigs, chickens and ducks (hence the monikers ‘swine flu’ and ‘bird flu), but there is a tendency to behave as if the reason for recent accelerated development of new strains is as much a mystery to science as the reason why the famous 1918 flu pandemic was so deadly. Of course, this lack of knowledge of why industrially-farmed pigs and chickens are harbouring ever increasing strains of flu implies that it is an as yet unfathomable mystery of virus behaviour, not anything to do with us. In fact, as Wallace points out, we know very well what changed to propel the evolution of bird and flu virus strains.

In pigs, the emergence of multiple strains of flu went ‘hoof in hoof with the reorganization of the hog industry’ (Big Farms, p.133), in particular, the shift from mostly small herds on family farms to very large herds in huge corporate facilities. These veritable pig cities are perfect places for different strains of the flu virus to develop and combine, particularly since in industrial pig production, the international movement of pigs from one facility to another is part of the system. The relationship of bird flu to industrial chicken production is similar.

Factors which make southern China ground zero for flu pandemics include farming practices going back to the seventeenth-century Qing dynasty, but the development of industrial poultry farming here has clearly heightened these existing tendencies. The sheer scale of poultry production in the region, like pig production now in vast industrial sites rather than family farms, coupled with the way in which the area ‘serves as a regional incubator for new methods in poultry breeding’ (Big Farms, p.60), are important vectors for the evolution of new flu viruses, which can then of course spread to humans.

The public response of agribusiness to the flu threat has often been to deny the problem entirely. This has sometimes been achieved in actual cover-ups: in 2004, faced with H5N1 outbreaks, major poultry producers in Thailand managed to persuade government officials to keep quiet about infected flocks so that they could keep on selling the chicken, with the result that production actually went up (Big Farms, p.116). In 2009, the US National Pork Producers blamed workers for giving swine flu to pigs, when it was much more likely to be the other way around (Big Farms, p.46).

Denial when the malign effects of a profitable business model are exposed is par for the course from corporations, but as Wallace identifies, the more considered responses of agribusiness to flu demonstrate a more insidious relationship between the business and the virus. International agribusiness corporations rarely end up being responsible for the cost of flu outbreaks, whether in livestock or in humans, and the global supply chains of the largest companies mean that they can often compensate for flu-related interruptions in normal business. Wallace gives the example of the CP Group, a major poultry producer based in Thailand but with production facilities across China. When Japan banned chicken imports from China in response to a flu outbreak at one of CP Group’s Chinese farms, the group simply increased the amount it was exporting to Japan from its Thai operations.

These sorts of profit-protecting responses are of course only available to large multi-nationals, which brings us to the ‘evil genius’ of the system; that the measures put in place in response to virus outbreaks, caused by the industrial methods of the agribusiness corporations, end up strengthening those same agribusiness corporations against the remaining small farmers. Not only are the temporary import bans likely to bankrupt small producers rather than multinationals, but the industry and governments keen to be seen to be doing something have a tendency to introduce new biosecurity measures which only the wealthiest corporations can afford. ‘The diseases that wipe out Big Food’s smaller competitors’, Wallace comments, ‘also offer an opportunity to cripple them between outbreaks’ (Big Farms, pp.115-7).

The naming of different flu strands has been a matter of considerable dispute, with national governments lobbying for the abandonment of regional names like the ‘Fujian-like’ strain on the grounds of unfair stigmatisation, and pig producers persuading the World Health Organisation to stop calling H1N1 ‘swine flu’. In view of the most important factors in the development of these flu strains, however, Wallace comments that the most apt naming conventions would be to use the name of the multinational who owns the facility where each strain first emerged. Calling in sick to work because you’ve got the ‘Bernard Matthews flu’ that’s going around would indeed be an effective reminder of the consequences of industrial farming systems. As Wallace says, it’s the inevitable result of ‘an ecological system built on growing money first.’ (Big Farms, p.266).

The recent experiences with swine flu and bird flu show how livestock farming as an industrial process encourages the development and transmission of more and more dangerous variants of viruses that humans have been catching from domesticated animals for centuries. Agribusiness is also however implicated in the emergence of new diseases, as the exploitation of previously unused land changes habitats and brings people into closer contact with the natural hosts of deadly viruses. The most recent, and most worrying, example of this is Ebola.


Paul Richards, Ebola. How a People’s Science Helped End an Epidemic (Zed Books 2016), xii, 180pp.

As Richards sets out in Ebola, his study of the lessons of the 2013-2015 Ebola epidemic in West Africa, the disease has been known since the 1970s, but in the limited twentieth-century outbreaks was mostly associated with hunters, bush meat preparation and consumption and contact with dead forest animals. This changed in 2000, when an outbreak in northern Uganda not only infected more people than previous episodes of the disease, but managed to break out of the rural area in which it first emerged to make it to a city. This would happen again, on a much larger scale, in the 2013-2015 epidemic.

The important question is why the Ebola virus had acquired this enhanced ability to infect large numbers of people. What changed it from an ‘intermittent forest killer … to a protopandemic infection … leaving bodies in the streets of capital cities’? (Big Farms, p.326). There is nothing to suggest that the 2013-2015 variant was more transmissible or pathogenic than previous variants, but it may be that people were coming into contact with it more often. The source of the virus in the 2000 outbreak was found to be fruit bats (Ebola, p.15) which, since they are symptomless carriers, have presumably been living with it for a very long time. What had changed, however, was land use in the Guinea forest area whence the virus emerged.

Richards describes how the hearth of the 2013-2015 Ebola outbreak was a forest edge area called the Gola Forest. In the way that state boundaries set by imperial overlords have to ignore local geographies, it is now divided between Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia, but in many ways, remains one area with cultural and trading links across the state lines. Richards recounts how the grandfather of one of his colleagues, a Kissi warrior from the Sierra Leone side of the border, maintained a home in each of Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia, ‘and depending on which government – French, British or Liberian – approached him for tax would relocate himself, his followers and his animals in one or other of the neighbouring countries to avoid payment’ (Ebola, p.35).

This area, according to the World Bank, is ‘one of the largest underused agricultural land reserves in the world’ (Big Farms, p.327), but is now being put to use, in particular for palm oil. This is significant, because various species of fruit bats appear to be attracted to palm oil plantations. Clearance of forest areas to make space for plantations disrupts the bats’ natural habitat, while the plantations themselves offer them food and shelter. One theory of the first cases in the recent epidemic is that they were children who had been playing either with bats or in a hollow tree where bats had been living. Wallace argues, in fact, that Ebola even in its earlier incarnation has always been a disease of expanding agriculture, right back to the first outbreak in 1976, centred around a British-financed cotton factory in Sudan. The area around the factory had been recently cleared from the rainforest following the end of the Sudanese civil war in 1972, displacing numerous bats, which were found to be roosting in the factory itself (Big Farms, p.330).

The lesson of both influenza and Ebola is that if we continue to treat the biosphere as a series of fungible commodities, then new and deadly disease outbreaks will be among the many malign consequences. It is sometimes suggested that the real issue here is meat eating: from bush meat in West Africa to chicken in the US and UK, if consumers would just cut back, or give it up entirely, there would be no industrial meat farming and hence no problem. The difficulties with this type of argument is that first, meat production has been practiced in the past, even to feed substantial urban populations, without creating major new virus strains. The most dangerous shifts in livestock farming are the creation of neoliberalism and the global food market of the past forty years.

The second objection is that these are not issues restricted to farming meat for human consumption. As discussed, the emergence of Ebola is particularly associated with the opening up of bat habitats for palm oil production. (Yet another reason why the suggestion that the controversial tallow used to produce the new £5 could be replaced by palm oil is an eyebrow-raising one). Agriculture carried on the ‘slash and burn now, worry about the consequences later’ principle has always had the potential for disaster, ever since proto-capitalist loggers in fifteenth-century England cut swathes through ancient forest and possibly let loose deadly epidemics of sweating sickness. It is the capitalist approach of ‘turning other people’s resources into enormous private profit (and blaming somebody else for the resulting damage)’ (Big Farms, p.231) which is the problem, not the nature of the commodity produced.

The answer is clearly an agriculture and an animal husbandry which takes account of local conditions and the needs of the entire ecosystem. There is a tendency, especially when dealing with production outside the First World, to dismiss local communities as ignorant and in need of Western enlightenment, where very often the opposite is true. Richards’ study of the response to Ebola in West Africa highlights how it was local communities as much as outside agencies who mobilised to restrict the spread of the disease, care for those affected and introduce a note of realism into the instructions of health agencies unused to the realities of health care in remote villages. As Richards says, in the face of a particularly distressing and easily-transmissible disease, particularly for those caring for the sick, they coped through ‘quick learning, quick thinking, improvised protection (with plastic bags and the like) and a dogged commitment to the idea of community’, while ‘the world…castigated them for sticking by the sick and dying’ (Ebola, p.151).

The lessons of how the Ebola epidemic was contained apply just as much to the fight to avoid the next deadly virus outbreak. Solutions which merely entrench the hold of major corporations over land and agricultural production are likely just to bring further problems with them. This doesn’t mean that we have to embrace the largely mythical idea of the Elysian, pre-capitalist family smallholding, nor a future where we spend every winter subsisting largely on turnips. A genuinely sustainable food-production system would probably look more like a mosaic than the current, more profitable monocultures. It would also see habitat loss, whether of Ebola-carrying bats or flu-carrying ducks, as crucial issues for everyone, not just for a few green cranks.

How we could get to that sustainable system is beyond the scope of both of these books, but as always, it is important to recognise that the notion of the powerful consumer is just another product corporations try to sell us. The issues caused by the structure of agribusiness will not be solved by consumers switching from one product or group of products to another, however well-intentioned. Still less will change happen through those well-intentioned consumers lecturing less enlightened others that they should do the same. Epidemic disease is one of the systemic consequences of capitalist production and it is on a systemic level that we have to fight it. What we eat while we do so is rather less important than we might think.

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. 

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