Treasuring Ireland: Connecting the Dots between the Current Pandemic and the Global Food System

21st May 2020
News Item

In these surreal times, this lengthy hiatus has given us all the great gift of time to evaluate and even reconsider what is important to us, as we slow down and reconnect with nature. A newly heightened sense of awareness is palpable and can be seen through different manifestations of collective and individual efforts and gestures in our daily lives. Many see this crisis as an opportunity that necessitates careful consideration and planning towards the creation of a world better than the one we left behind us last December... for a future that we will all now know as our “new normal”. Understanding how we managed to get here in the first place is paramount to stopping further crises of this nature, and others, from unfolding. While some challenges ahead cannot be prevented, they can certainly be minimised or even managed to ensure the best possible outcome for both humankind and the planet.

The new normal will always be entrenched in our past mistakes but will also be determined by the decisions we make today. What could this mean for Ireland in the context of our current position in the EU and the world? To inform such decisions it is important to draw from similar crises of the past while making connections, based on sound science, to recent factors that may have contributed to our current situation. The common theory amongst scientists, that the Covid-19 virus was sourced from animal transmission in the wet markets of Wuhan, China, is now well fixed in the global psyche. While this hypothesis is highly likely, if you explore a little deeper you will find that this is just where the story begins.

It is first important to understand that epidemics and pandemics do not come from an isolated cause or event e.g. bats, but by many complex interactions, pressures and drivers that have occurred over time and across different spatial scales. It may sound complicated… well, that's because it is!

While indisputable confirmation regarding the exact origins of the current pandemic cannot yet be made, some food for thought can be given by addressing the origins and structural causes for rising trends in emerging infectious diseases that can ultimately result in epidemics or pandemics. However, one thing is certain; such crises directly derive from human mistreatment and exploitation of the environment for our own needs. If we go back far enough, we can infer that our answers lie within the story of our current and past food production systems.

While our ancestral hunter-gatherers also became exposed to infectious diseases through novel contact with wildlife, it was not until the agricultural revolution some 11,000 years ago that a significant rise in the transmission of infectious diseases from animals to humans began to prevail. Domesticated animals were held in compact, confined quarters which greatly suppressed their immune systems and increased the transmission of disease. As livestock numbers grew so did the human population, creating a breeding ground for new diseases in early village life, with once rare epidemics now becoming an all too common part of the human experience.

The vicious circle of population growth and increasing food demand has continued to the present day as have many of the same agricultural practices. This may seem ironic now as the agricultural revolution itself was the biggest driver in history that enabled us as a species to multiply exponentially through increased access to nutrition and improved health. This, in turn, continued to necessitate increased agricultural production in order to sustain a growing population, a paradox that Yuval Noah Harari in his book ‘Sapiens’ calls “the luxury trap”.

If we fast forward to the present, increasing pressures on food systems can be observed within the context of our current capital-led and highly industrialised global agricultural model. The latest predictions from the United Nations project an increase of 4 Billion people by the year 2100, bringing us beyond 11 Billion. High consumption levels, driven by economic growth, put the biggest pressures on the planet’s resources. Furthermore, increases in affluence in developing countries have prompted a rise in consumption levels and changes in dietary trends that mostly drive a higher demand for meat and dairy products. Therefore, significant increases in food production will need to be implemented if the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal “to eradicate hunger” is to be met. It is, however, not our increasing demand for food that will exacerbate the rise of infectious disease but the way our current food system operates, and the means within which we make such output possible.

Agricultural demands already account for half of the world's land and two thirds of its fresh water. Under our current system, the doubling or tripling of this figure may be required to meet future demands. Agribusiness today drives humans further in on the final frontiers of our planet’s remaining ecosystems. Such advances are viewed as necessary to make way for crop or rangeland to feed and accommodate increasing numbers of livestock.

Current agricultural practices (i.e. the destruction of ecosystems and wildlife as well as imposed genetic monoculture practices) will no doubt continue to increase contact rates between humans, livestock and wild animals. Moreover, environmental perturbations led by domestic animal production and wildlife trade, will break down biogeographic and ecological barriers, allowing species that were once isolated from one another to come into close contact. This biotic mixing can enhance the chances of spill over events, where pathogens that once remained boxed in by their ecologies switch from one host to another. To put it simply, pathogens must find new homes once we have destroyed theirs, which unfortunately, in many cases, can become us humans.

These interactions are exacerbated by climate change, as a warming planet drives further environmental change which can alter species movements and distribution patterns. In addition to this, warming encourages the spread of pathogens and increases vector-borne disease transmission.

Climate change magnifies interactions that result in emerging infectious diseases already fostered by environmental perturbation from agricultural activity. At the same time, agricultural activity, particularly from the meat and dairy industry, disproportionately contributes to the climate crisis itself. In Ireland the agriculture sector accounts for the biggest contribution to our national emissions at a whopping 34%. The rise in global agricultural emissions occurs as a result of cattle digestion, the destruction of the world's forests to hold and feed domesticated animals, and the processing and transportation of animal products. These climate and environmental disturbances, coupled with a parasite's ability to switch hosts, can result in the outbreak of emerging infectious diseases. See I told you it was complicated!

Industrialised agriculture also is implicated through land grabs in poorer countries that force smallholder farmers to resort to other activities such as wild meat trade. In addition, land use change led by agribusiness that expand deep into untouched ecosystems force subsistence farmers further into undisturbed areas which enhances the likeliness of interactions between humans and wildlife resulting in increased risk of emerging zoonotic diseases. It is the world's poorest people that are at the highest risk due to the disproportionate intensification and expansion of agriculture in the global south. They are also hit the hardest from the impacts of climate change and the least equipped to deal with it.

The emergence of these diseases are exacerbated further by a globalised system that extends food supply chains and supports a global travel network that is now at record connectivity, facilitating the ability for transmission rates of pathogens across the world to sky rocket. This is why it is simplistic to put the current pandemic down to one causal event. Bats are indeed the main suspects behind numerous novel strains of coronavirus including our current Covid-19 outbreak and the SARS and MERS epidemics witnessed in recent history with many human infections from bat-related viruses spread through intermediate animal hosts that came from either domesticated or wild animals sold for food. However, one must look at the bigger picture that involves the origins of wild markets which are underpinned by pressures from industrial agriculture developments.

While zoonosis in many cases spreads to humans from wildlife as an indirect result from intensified agriculture, another great threat is present in industrial farms. Since the 1940s we have tackled the issue of disease transmission from animal overcrowding with the overuse of prophylactic antibiotics. The emergence of drug resistant strains of disease in humans is a direct result of this. With 25,000 deaths annually attributed to antibiotic resistance in the EU according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and some predictions suggesting up to 10 million deaths per year globally by 2050 from the same cause, the seriousness of this issue should not be underestimated. Antibiotics will likely become less effective over time, making infectious diseases for both humans and animals more difficult to treat. Already, devastating animal losses to disease have been witnessed. In the last 25 years the H5N1 virus and the foot and mouth outbreak have resulted in the destruction of 1.2M chickens and 6M livestock in China and the UK. 11M cattle worldwide have also been slaughtered due to “mad cow disease” in this time.

Even more worrisome is the prediction that insecticide resistance will also increase due to the increased application of pesticides on farms. This will cause further implications for infectious diseases carried by insect vectors. Furthermore, the overuse of pesticides can have many other effects on host–parasite interactions since it can increase both human and animal susceptibility to parasites as many pesticides are immunomodulators. Nitrogen fertiliser application is also expected to increase threefold by 2050 to feed the world. The links to nutrient enrichment are complex with its application contributing to both improved nutritional health as well as decreased health from infections. Studies however show that fertiliser over-application by and large contributes to worsening the impact of infectious diseases.

Again, those living in poorer countries will feel the most impacts from harmful agricultural practices. Disease-driven poverty traps become further exacerbated as the world's poor have no other choice but to destroy their surrounding habitats to meet short term needs. They then may become sick and unable to work from exposure to harmful chemicals and transformed environments that foster higher risks of infectious disease. As these places tend to have inadequate health systems and a low investment in disease protection, this trap can easily become tightly shut.

When all of these complex interactions and factors are considered, it almost makes us wonder how a pandemic of this scale had not come sooner. After all, experts on infectious diseases had been trying to warn us about the possibilities for some time. With these trends only expected to multiply, some serious concern as well as considered action are urgently needed. So, what can we do about this?

The pandemic crisis has at least given us some answers. Mass culling of domestic animals are starting to happen in the US due to rising Covid-19 infections in the meatpacking workforce, which have become breeding grounds for transmission. Milk and eggs are being dumped to reduce supplies in different countries. The killing and burial of millions of domesticated animals will also have huge implications for pollution of our atmosphere and water courses. It is now more than ever evident that the current neoliberal system used for global food production is not sustainable, nor does it care about the wellbeing of animals or humans for that matter.

Here in Ireland, our agricultural sector has been extremely disrupted by Covid-19. Bord Bia has already confirmed a €7 Billion Euro loss from the closure of the food service sector across Europe. The beef industry has been hit the hardest with some meat plants forced to temporarily close due to the virus spreading across the workforce. Peak production levels in the coming summer will present storage problems for excess milk in the dairy sector. Downward prices on Irish dairy produce are currently being discussed in an attempt to avoid the losses experienced by our neighbours in the UK. Practitioners cling onto hope through the introduction of measures in other countries, most notably China, which aims to re-establish higher consumption of dairy products by incentivising consumers through coupon cash schemes. Fast food outlets are also pushing for earlier reopening which beef producers in Ireland eagerly await.

With this in mind, the public response in New Zealand to the reopening of fast food outlets, which made headlines due to the traffic jams generated, makes one wonder if humankind has learned nothing from Mother Nature’s warnings in the last year. The image of long queues of cars lined up for a Big Mac or a Quarter Pounder epitomises the problem - capitalism fuelled mania! In these moments, aspirations of new beginnings that reject going back to business as usual can be easily forgotten, and a profound feeling of despair can take over. It is important however, to regain the belief that not all hope is lost. After all, many have already joined the dots. As a collective, we do not want to continue down a route that will only lead to more tragedy.

The main short-term solution in tackling these entangled issues is to simply reduce human consumption of animal products, in particular meat. However, even if all the people of Ireland decided to consume animal products at a sustainable level it would still unfortunately not be enough to significantly reduce our export driven footprint on global emissions, nor our impact on land use changes overseas with the destruction of the last rainforests to facilitate the production of feedstocks for our farm animals here, thus indirectly increasing the risk of local infectious diseases. We need to stop investing in national projects such as FoodWise 2025 that perpetuate the very essence of capital-led agribusiness without due consideration for small farming communities, nor animal welfare both here and overseas. Heavily subsidising industrial agribusinesses only fuels price distortions that increase the cost of vegetables and fruits and make animal-sourced foods much cheaper than they were fifty years ago. A more balanced approach is needed.

The promotion of local food production as well as food diversification is key to ensuring a sustainable approach towards food security. With more mindful consumption, the old style of traditional farming has a lot to say for itself and can be used alongside new technologies that can result in both sustainable and efficient food production outcomes. Most importantly, a new attitude towards food production and consumption needs to take place with food sovereignty at the heart of all decisions instead of mindless food production that focuses on quantity over nutritional value.

The current model for food production has now reached its limits. A new approach must instead be rooted in community and environmental justice. Therefore, supports such as direct payment to local producers and better access to land are crucial in the move towards a just transition. A decentralised food system would encourage better affordability and accessibility to nutritional food for consumers, independent of their financial situation.

Farmer’s voices need to be brought to the table as they are the ones with a direct link to the land. Multinational meat and dairy companies have pushed them into exploiting their land for far too long, turning their livelihoods into constant struggles. Our own national policies and state agencies have led farmers down the wrong path by prioritising intensification too much rather than focusing on other aspects of farming such as protecting biodiversity, waterways, our national landscape and public health. Furthermore, our island’s carrying capacity for food production needs to be better utilised rather than depending on imports of fertiliser to work the land harder and feedstocks that come from unsustainable sources abroad to support our unsustainable amount of livestock. Education and training for both farmers and citizens on food sovereignty and how it works is also fundamental to creating a new framework that supports sustainability. Finally, the growth of more food in urban areas through rewilding, vertical farming and allotment practices etc. has the potential to further increase food production locally and we could all start doing this today. These efforts would ensure a higher level of food security for Ireland which is now more than ever necessary as the UN predicts global famines on the horizon.

It is up to us to inform our leaders that these changes can benefit us all as it is clear that they have failed to appreciate the connection between these issues. The electorate must convey the message that epidemiological, social and ecological sustainability trumps agribusiness. As a nation, I know that we can do this because we care about the planet, the wellbeing of ourselves, our children's future and others more vulnerable across the globe. Profits for a few can no longer be placed ahead of collective well-being. In order to flip this issue on its head, agribusiness as a model that reproduces social inequalities must be reformed for the sake of both our health and humanity. It is exciting to think of what we can achieve if we work together in building our new normal. The creation of a more equal world and an improved environment that moves us further away from the risks associated with climate collapse and future pandemics, is achievable, if we want it to be. It is true when they say a crisis brings us the opportunity for change. That opportunity is now and we must act fast before it is gone!

by Francesca Loughran, An Taisce Climate Change Committee

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