Capitalist Agriculture and the Age of Pandemics
Laura Eco / Juan Sintierra
15 Mar 2021
“Global capitalist development, especially of international agribusiness and its factory farms, have gobbled so much of the natural world as to bring our society into increasing proximity with formerly isolated ecosystems. That enables viruses to jump from previously isolated wild animals into the food system and agricultural laborers, and then by way of food products and travelers, to move throughout the world in a matter of weeks. In other words, the age of global capitalism is an age of pandemics.”
Now entering its second year the global COVID-19 pandemic endures, bolstered by coronavirus mutations, by negligent state policies that put the economy above human life, and by the delayed and iniquitous rollout of Big Pharma’s medical bullet -- “the vaccine”. But the last twenty years have illustrated – with the annual emergence of viruses such as H1N1, H7N9, SARS, MERS, Ebola Makona, Chikungunya and Zika – that magic medical bullets won’t protect us for long in the age of pandemics. Nor will xenophobic explanations, snake-oil remedies or conspiracy theories. It is time, we argue, to look upstream at the “big picture” to understand how we got here – and how we might move forward.
In this essay we explore the big picture – the nature of capitalist agriculture at the roots of the COVID-19 and other pandemics – drawing heavily on the work of evolutionary biologist and eco-socialist Rob Wallace. We then postulate the potential applicability of his ideas in the Nicaraguan context, and end exploring tenets of eco-socialism as a way forward. We propose this bricolage of ideas to provoke deeper thinking on alternatives, rather than offer solutions.
Big Farms make Big Flu: Rob Wallace
Spanning twenty-five years, evolutionary biologist, public health phylogeographer and eco-socialist Rob Wallace’s poignant works – including Big Farms make big flu: Dispatches on infectious disease, agribusiness and the nature of science (2016) and Dead epidemiologists: On the origins of Covid-19 (2020) – pose an essential fact about past, present and future pandemics: Global and local capital drive the model of agriculture and requisite deforestation, biodiversity loss, and wildlife displacement that increasingly expose us to new viral pathogens. Wallace’s recombinant science – which moves between genetic sequences, to economic geographies of land use, to the political economy of global agriculture, to the epistemology of science – meticulously illustrates that those pathogens while new, are not isolated cases with independent aetiologies. Rather, the accelerating emergence of virulent cross-continental pathogens is inter-connected with flows of capital and the intensification of globalized agribusiness. And so “[a]nyone who aims to understand why viruses are becoming more dangerous must investigate the industrial model of agriculture and, more specifically, livestock production”.
Indeed 21st century viruses have emerged ‘hand in hoof’ with new models of intensive livestock operations such as the enormous Tyson-style vertically integrated consolidations which manufacture not only genetically identical pigs and “exploding chickens” engineered to produce more meat and fast growth, but also act as incubators for industrial-strength pathogens. Wallace’s work is dedicated to illustrating how and why that is so. Greatly simplified here, his well-researched arguments illustrate how manufactured genetic similarities in these livestock create immuno-compromised animals. That predisposition, combined with the overcrowded and poor hygienic conditions in which these industrial livestock are raised causes stress, which further reduces their immune system and effectively removes natural immunity to viral outbreaks that one might find in more diverse populations. These genetically identical livestock populations are also unable to evolve resistance to circulating pathogens and cannot pass on their resistance to their offspring. But the lack of biodiversity facilitates excellent and fast-moving viral efforts at recombination and proliferation.
The sheer size of livestock operations, industry integration and corporate concentration is also mind-boggling. In the US, only four companies using 12 plants produce over 50% of beef, and in 12 others, produce over 50% of the country’s pork. In China, one privately owned company is set to add to its two seven-story sow breeding operations a thirteen-story “hog hotel” in which to raise a thousand head per floor using “a full-industry chain technology-based farming and animal husbandry enterprise integrating breeding pigs, fattening pigs, semen, feed and pig farm equipment”. Around the world, laying hens are stocked in barns of up to 250,000 birds. And in Nicaragua, the TipTop chicken processing facility owned by Cargill boasts the capacity to slaughter up to 14,000 birds per hour. As Wallace notes, these “veritable cities” of poultry and livestock currently make up 72% of global animal biomass, far exceeding that of vertebrate wildlife. And that has a cost: of 39 documented transitions from low to high deadliness in avian influenzas from 1959 onwards, for example, all but two occurred in commercial poultry operations with tens or hundreds of thousands of birds.
But while capital from New York to Beijing to Managua benefits from this ever-increasing expansion, and while science either willfully or inadvertently supports it by contributing research on biosecurity and promulgating agro-industrial paths to “feeding the world’s people”, the true costs are externalized to workers and the environment. Racialized workers need the poorly paid jobs and the cheap food that factory farms offer, but their work conditions make them prime targets for viral proliferation, and a disproportionate number of COVID-19 deaths. In the deeply deforested “soybean republic” of Brazil, the world’s fourth largest pork producer, for example, by October 2020, 20% of workers in pork-producing plants were infected. In Canada meat-packing plants harbor the biggest outbreaks and in the US, where 80% of meat-packers are people of color and 52% are immigrants, hundreds of thousands of workers have become infected with COVID-19. In July, even before the second wave of the pandemic, researchers reported livestock plants globally were associated with 236,000 to 310,000 COVID-19 cases (6 to 8% of total) and 4,300 to 5,200 deaths (3 to 4% of total).
Meanwhile, deforestation on the other end of these highly intensified capitalist agricultural relations disrupts the hitherto natural firebreaks between wild and domestic animals, allowing select pathogens to jump species, with viruses selecting genes for more virulence and infectivity as they go. And as Wallace and others have now illustrated, it is also such processes of recombination of bat genes with those of civets, which acted as intermediaries(Centre for Genomic Research, 2021) that is hypothesized to have led to the emergence of both the SARS-1 and the SARS-Cov-2 virus in humans (Davis, 2020). But SARS is not the only example. In fact, SARS, MERS, Chikungunya, Q fever, Zika and Ebola, among others have all been tied to such processes. As Wallace notes: there are 1.6 million unknown viruses circulating in wild animals, half of which have zoonotic (animal to people transmission) potential (Wallace, 2021).
A quick look at the state of Nicaraguan land ownership, corporate agribusiness, worker safety, and levels of deforestation suggests a hypothetical yes. One example that facilitates an exploration of that hypothesis is Cargill, a company with some of the largest livestock operations – and COVID-19 outbreaks – in the world; that owns and controls two-thirds of Nicaragua’s highly industrialized and concentrated poultry industry; that defends its concentrated ownership of the Nicaraguan poultry sector as “natural” and that appears to conceal its true worker safety record with dubious management and union practices.
As part of our research, we interviewed a former Cargill executive who revealed that: “…despite rigorous hygiene and safety procedures, the scale of the company’s industrial operations make testing or sampling every animal for infectious diseases simply impossible. As with livestock operations everywhere, Cargill chickens are also almost genetically identical, belonging to a single chicken breed code named Cobb 500". Because genetic homogenization is the perfect breeding ground for infectious diseases, massive amounts of antibiotics are applied at every stage of the birds’ development. Despite the widespread use of antibiotics, our source claims, "unspecified numbers of chickens die in the growth process" and "there are no autopsy procedures carried out on chickens that are found dead; they are simply discarded". There is also a "high risk of contamination in the transportation from the breeding houses to the slaughterhouses where birds are even more crammed into tiny cages, one on top of the other, covering each other in feces in the long journey…”
As with myriad countries in the world hosting intensive livestock operations on the one hand while encroaching on the tropical forests on the other, Nicaragua too could be the next Wuhan.
Healing the metabolic rift
“Big picture, we must heal the metabolic rifts separating our ecologies from our economies. In short, we have a planet to win.”
Rapid urbanization, extractive industries and land grabbing practices, corporate agri-business consolidation, and especially the rise of large-scale factory farms – all integral to neoliberal globalized capitalism – have created the perfect breeding ground for the emergence and spread of new highly virulent strains of pathogens, which are now accelerating at an unsurpassed pace. Genetic uniformity and overcrowding facilitate rapid viral transmission, while deforestation erodes natural firebreaks and assists wild animal pathogens to jump species. The very nature of capitalist agricultural production thus ensures that viral diseases spread and proliferate through animal vectors or through the workers themselves. And nowhere is exempt.
Meanwhile, as capitalist profiteers consolidate their clutch on our food and health, the mainstream public health community is consumed and exhausted with putting out the fires of each successive pandemic, while mainstream environmentalism (cleverly summarized as ‘plant a tree, buy a bike, save the world’ by Maniates (2001) promotes eco-business and eco-consumption. And so, the big picture – the structural causes – go unchecked.
Not to discount, but to counterpose these mainstream ideas is eco-socialism, a body of scientific ideas and a movement that openly names capitalism as the cause of environmental degradation, and the way forward as collective mobilization toward a just transition, collective ownership and democratic planning. Eco-socialism is rooted in Marx’s preoccupation with the metabolic rift – the disruption of the complex interdependent human-nature relations that is created by the growing urban-rural gap and capitalist agriculture, which “simultaneously undermines the original sources of all wealth – the soil and the worker.” As we have submitted, capitalist agriculture not only robs the soil and the worker, but its theft of nature links directly to viral pandemics.
Rob Wallace has empirically provided us well-contemplated links between the capitalist mode of agricultural production, ecological destruction, and the emergence of pathogens like COVID-19 that disproportionately affect working people, and he calls upon people to think deep, challenge the system, and work collectively toward alternatives. His eco-socialist analysis recognizes that the solution to this and future pandemics must necessarily include a challenge to the ecologically and socially exploitative nature of capitalism. It must start by putting working people first, not only at the front of the vaccination lines but also in defining, autonomously organizing and benefitting from a more democratic distribution and control of land and resources, and in the promotion of life-sustaining agroecological smallholder practices.
Our hypothetical case suggests Nicaragua has the conditions to incubate a future viral contagion, but it also has a David and Goliath history. The current anti-capitalist struggle for control of land and resources in the hands of working people – rather than corporate conglomerates or party cronies – is not a struggle reflected on the electoral platform of any of the political parties right now. In the spirit of avoiding another global pandemic, should it be?
 For us, Wallace’s mastery of science uses multi-disciplinary research in a ‘recombination’ that matches viral mastery at that biological feat. Viruses are basically parasitic genes that hijack and proliferate within the genetic machinery of the cells they invade. The terms recombinant and reassortment refer to two processes by which viruses or viral segments can recombine within a host cell that can result in the generation of new progeny viruses (Davis, 2020). The ability of coronaviruses to quickly recombine, together with their high mutation rate, enables them to readily adapt to new hosts and ecological niches. Metaphorically, Wallace’s work calls on science to likewise creatively recombine its methods and canons to enable deeper analyses of viral aetiology. His provocative book title “Dead Epidemiologists” for example, is not so much a dismissal of the useful research that is produced in that branch of medical science, but an impatient call-out of its shortcomings, borne from the compartmentalization of science itself.
 The UN, the FAO and other reputable global agencies have established that it is overwhelmingly small farmers who “feed the world” yet research and government subsidies overwhelmingly support agribusiness. See also: https://tinyurl.com/46hutn4
 The Zika virus originated in a mosquito found in forests in Uganda before making its eventual way to Brazil, where a different mosquito allowed it to wreak havoc; the Ebola virus circulated in forest bats in the Congo for years before intense logging disrupted its habitat and it showed up with new vengeance in swaths of West Africa.
 See minute 3:00
 The interviewee requested to remain anonymous.
 For more information on eco-socialist ideas see also https://tinyurl.com/4fbv82mu
 From: Karl Marx, Capital: Volume I (London: Penguin Books, 1990), 638.
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