By John Reimann, USA
The Covid-19 pandemic which is wreaking such havoc is first and foremost an environmental disease. Or, more exactly, it is caused by how our society – capitalist society – interacts with the natural world. This includes both wilderness areas and modern capitalist agriculture, and the relationship between these two. As with all resources, from human labor power to raw chemicals to everything in between, capitalism views everything as potential capital to be exploited and profited off of. Their idea is that modern technology can control the laws of nature, can dominate the natural world and bend it to their will, just as they try to do (largely successfully) with labor power, meaning us, the working class. Time and again we witness the results – from cancer pandemics to global warming. Almost all of these, however, have crept up on us gradually, but the Covid-19 pandemic is hitting with a bang. As they say, “the (immediate) prospect of hanging causes the mind to focus wonderfully”, and this immediate and sudden crisis can help our minds to focus.
It can help us think about how human society must interact with the natural world. That interaction is what is driving the Covid-19 pandemic, since it’s a zoonotic disease, meaning a disease that has breached the species barrier – jumped from another species to humans.
A UN report estimates that 75% all new infectious diseases are zoonotic. These include Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), Ebola, bird flu, Rift Valley fever, West Nile virus, Zika virus disease and in the United States Lyme disease. The path for transmission is often, but not always, from a wild animal to a domesticated one to humans.
Habitat loss, combined with modern capitalist agriculture, is the driving force behind this. Impoverished expanding human populations are driven to expand into previously wild areas. As a result, wild animals are forced out of their previous living areas and come into either direct or indirect contact with domesticated ones. Ebola is an example. According to a Nation Magazine article, Ebola was found “more likely to occur in places in Central and West Africa that have experienced recent episodes of deforestation.” Bats are the original carrier of the virus. The Nation explains: “Cutting down the bats’ forests forces them to roost in trees in backyards and farms instead, increasing the likelihood that a human might, say, take a bite of a piece of fruit covered in bat saliva or hunt and slaughter a local bat, exposing herself to the microbes sheltering in the bat’s tissues. Such encounters allow a host of viruses carried harmlessly by bats—Ebola, Nipah, and Marburg, to name a few—to slip into human populations. When such so-called “spillover” events happen frequently enough, animal microbes can adapt to our bodies and evolve into human pathogens.” Other crossovers can occur if a bat drops a piece of partially eaten fruit over a pig farm where huge herds of pigs are kept. One of the pigs can eat the fruit.
Industrial agriculture & real estate development
It is not just the individual small farmer who is responsible for this process. From the jungles of Borneo to central Africa to the Amazon, forests are being cut down both to make way for industrial agriculture and to provide lumber, including valuable hardwoods. In other instances, mangrove swamps in delta areas are being destroyed to build luxury housing on coast lines. Under capitalism, the longer term environmental consequences, including the spread of zoonotic diseases, cannot be considered. It is private profit first, last and always.
Nor does the rise of zoonotic diseases originate purely in Africa and Asia. Although it is not contagious from one human to another, Lyme disease is another example. Concentrated mainly in Northeast United States, its increase is due to the construction of suburban housing in former forest areas. Lyme disease is spread by the black leg tick, which bites people to suck their blood and at the same time injects some of its saliva into the blood stream of the person. That saliva carries the bacteria that causes Lyme disease. A major carrier of that bacteria is white-footed mice. One study found that suburbanization seems to increase the threat of the disease. The process is as follows: The suburbs usually include small forested areas both as small parks and in people’s back yards. Such areas tend to discourage populations of predators of the white-footed mouse, but not the mouse itself, whose population then increases. (Opossums, whose populations also decline, are also a voracious predator of ticks.) Ticks suck the blood of those mice and get the bacteria, which they then pass on to humans.
So we see how the unplanned and voracious nature of the real estate industry has such environmental consequences.
The case of Lyme disease also points to a more general growing catastrophe: The decline in “biodiversity”, meaning decline in the number of different species. But it’s not only in the number of different species; it’s also a decline in the number of members of any particular species. These two processes combine to reduce the diversity in the gene pool of the animals. In a large and diverse gene pool for any species, genetic variation will allow the species to resist the spread of a particular pathogen – a particular virus or bacteria. A large gene pool can act like a fire-break in a forest. Take away that genetic variation and the fire-break can disappear. As a result, where in the past maybe a limited number of the members of the species carried the pathogen, what can develop is that the pathogen can spread to the entire species.
Dr. Richard Ostfeld is a researcher specializing in Lyme disease. He explains “When we do things in an ecosystem that erode biodiversity — we chop forests into bits or replace habitat with agricultural fields — we tend to get rid of species that serve a protective role. There are a few species that are reservoirs and a lot of species that are not. The ones we encourage are the ones that play reservoir roles.” (“Reservoir role” means those that carry or act as a “reservoir” for the pathogen.”)
A UN report summarized the process: “Forests are exploited for logging, landscapes are clear-cut for agriculture and mining interests, and the traditional buer zones – once separating humans from animals or from the pathogens that they harbour – are notably reduced or lost. Because of historic underinvestment in the health sector of developing nations, and rapid development often at the cost of natural capital, disease emergence is likely to continue…”
Meat production and factory farming
This destruction of the wilderness, the view of the wilds of nature as being simply one more source of capital to be exploited regardless of the laws of nature, intersects with food production in agriculture. It’s the same approach in this sphere, where the method of meat production is factory farming.
This method of raising meat animals – cattle, pigs, fowls, etc. – crowds together huge numbers of them so that a germ can easily spread throughout the crowd. The animals are also kept in unhealthy conditions, leaving them more vulnerable to disease. The development of factory farms is the equivalent of the urbanization of human beings. And just as urbanization made possible the spread of mass plagues by bringing masses of people together in similar conditions, so has the urbanization of meat animals done the same thing. In some cases, the pathogen does not sicken the meat animals because it originated in some wild animal, but it spreads nevertheless and from the meat animal to the human animal.
One scientific paper explains “Commodity agriculture represents an expanding sink for a growing array of zoonotic pathogens…. Our inductive modeling suggests repeated punctuated emergence and human spillover of food-borne pathogens are intrinsic to industrial systems of production….”
In many cases, the factory farmed animals are more or less force fed food that is unnatural for them to eat. For example, in the huge cattle feedlots, the main food is corn and corn derivatives. But cows are a ruminant whose natural food is grass. Eating corn and corn derivatives upsets their digestive system and leaves them more susceptible to disease, which is why it’s necessary to regularly feed the cattle antibiotics.
This, in and of itself, is leading to another pandemic-like health crisis: The rise of antibiotic resistant bacteria. That development is due to the overexposure of bacteria to antibiotics, most particularly on these factory farms. It is estimated that the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria already causes 700,000 unnecessary deaths and that by 2050 that number will have swelled to 10 million. Operations like a knee replacement or a Cesarian section will be life-threatening at that point. But again, there are profits to be made right now and the future be damned.
There is one other issue involved: In agriculture, uniform genetics leaves the plants vulnerable to a particular parasite. It’s the same thing in raising animals for food. The same scientific paper mentioned above explains: “Industrial food production strips out environmental stochasticity (or randomness) that can cap pathogen population growth.” Like probably every other worker, I had to look up that word – “stochasticity”. It means apparently random variations, which is exactly how evolution proceeds. But also, if you have a huge crowd of plants or animals that are genetically nearly identical, then that crowd is likely to be susceptible to some particular pest or pathogen; that pathogen or pest can spread throughout the crowd like a wildfire roars through a forest that has no fire break. This adds to the extremely unhealthy way in which the animals are kept and the fact that humans are in close contact not only with the animals but also with the huge amounts of feces the animals leave.
Whether it’s plants or animals, genetic monoculture is an invitation to disaster.
An article in Socialist Review summarized the process: “Genetic monocultures of animals remove whatever immune firebreaks may otherwise slow transmission. Large population sizes and densities facilitate greater rates of transmission. Crowded conditions depress immune responses. Fast turnover of livestock provides a continually renewed supply of susceptible hosts.”
Monoculture is facilitated by the near monopoly just a few corporate giants exercise over much of food production. For example, according to Socialist Review, in Britain one company controls 70% of white egg production and another controls 80% of brown egg production. In the US, six companies control 61% of poultry production, with Tyson Farms controlling 21% alone.
With the rapid rise of the capitalist mode of production in China, factory farming has taken over there. An article in Bloomberg.com explains that in China, factory farmed animal raising has gone to 97% of livestock. It’s the same in Europe and the US. (The fact that Bloomberg would carry this article shows the extreme concern of the capitalist class over these pandemics.)
Urbanization and plagues
The same article neatly explains the entire pandemic process: “Epidemics are a product of urbanization. Only when humans started to pack themselves into densely populated cities around 5,000 years ago were infections able to attain the critical mass needed to kill us in large numbers. The worldwide disease outbreaks we call pandemics started to emerge only when our urban civilization went global.
“Think about that in terms of the livestock industry and the implications are concerning. In the space of 50 years or so factory farming has “urbanized” an animal population that was previously scattered between small and midsize holdings. Epidemic conditions that once only affected humans can increasingly pose threats to our food animals, too.
“Then consider each animal as a potential laboratory for the mutations that can cause new epidemics to emerge. Globally, the population of farm animals is about three times that of humans. Some of the most serious disease outbreaks in recent decades have resulted from infections crossing the species barrier from intensively farmed livestock to people.”
Corporate political influence
The drive for private profit also affects regulating of the corporate giants that control food production. In general, the government agencies that are supposed to regulate different industries are closely linked with and strongly influenced by the relevant industry itself. Nowhere is this more so than the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), which is headed by Sonny Perdue. Not only is he a fan of the Confederacy, he is also tightly connected with the agricultural industry. Nor are these sorts of connections exclusive to Trump. Under Obama, the secretary of agriculture was Tom Vilsack, who was known as “Mr. Monsanto”.
This directly affects the threat of diseases to leap the species barrier. For example, it required decades of pressure to force the USDA to prohibit the marketing of cows that had died from mad cow disease. And a half million diseased pigs are still marketed every year in the US. Meanwhile, the USDA is moving towards allowing the slaughterhouse industry to monitor itself.
Because of these developments, Covid-19 is not the first nor will it be the last such pandemic, and even the common flu is getting worse. According to Socialist Review This year’s  flu season is shaping up to be the worst in years, according to the US Centre for Disease Control. In the US alone there have been 19 million illnesses, 180,000 hospitalisations and 10,000 deaths.” Far, far worse threatens. As the Ebola epidemic showed, future pandemics may be far more deadly. And all for the drive for profit.
Marx and Engels
Of course, this is not totally new to capitalism. As early as the 19th century, Karl Marx commented “In these prisons, animals are born and remain there until they are killed off. The question is whether or not this system connected to the breeding system that grows animals in an abnormal way by aborting bones in order to transform them to mere meat and a bulk of fat — whereas earlier animals remained active by staying under free air as much as possible — will ultimately result in serious deterioration of life force.”
And Frederick Engels explained the general relationship: “Thus at every step we are reminded that we by no means rule over nature like a conqueror over a foreign people, like someone standing outside nature – but that we, with flesh, blood and brain, belong to nature, and exist in its midst, and that all our mastery of it consists in the fact that we have the advantage over all other creatures of being able to learn its laws and apply them correctly.”
Regenerative farming the alternative to factory farms
There is an alternative to factory farming. It is called regenerative farming. This method of food production mimics how nature operates. In the wild in North America, millions of bison roamed the continent. To protect themselves from predators, they bunched up in herds and were constantly on the move. Regenerative farming divides up a farm into small “paddocks”
and moves the cattle from one paddock to another. Just as in the wild all sorts of different plants and animals intermingle, so in regenerative farming the crops are varied and the different paddocks are exposed not only to cattle but also to chickens, pigs, etc. Instead of ploughing, which leads to soil erosion, regenerative farming uses seed drills.
This farming method also has the advantage of not only allowing the soil to absorb much more water (think: droughts), but it also enables the soil to capture huge amounts of carbon dioxide. In other words, it would be an important measure to help stop and reverse global warming.
There is much more to regenerative farming, and Oaklandsocialist deals with some of this in the articles on Global warming, “grass” farming and a planned economy and Developing a Marxist approach to global agriculture.
As the first mentioned article explains, though, the problem is that there are powerful capitalist interests standing in the way of regenerative farming. This includes the chemical/fertilizer/pesticide industry first and foremost. Also, the entire food production industry in the United States is geared to and to a great extent based on producing massive amounts of corn. As discussed in “Global warming, grass farming…” this creates a whole series of problems in and of itself. Despite this, however, a movement is underway among farmers to return to these methods, not for ideological reasons but for economic ones. This should be encouraged.
Regenerative farming, which more or less also involves organic methods, is also much better for the agricultural workers, who are often poisoned by the chemicals they are forced to use. Therefore, this is also a strictly working class issue.
Immediate economic demands
There are many economic demands that are being raised with regard to the Covid-19 pandemic. These include such steps as full pay for all workers forced to take time off due to the pandemic and forgiveness of rent or house notes, for those who lose wages. Also the same for student loans. These and similar demands should be supported, and Oaklandsocialist will be writing more on these.
These demands must come first at this time.
Thinking longer term
The idea that every crisis is an opportunity, a “teaching moment”, applies here. Once this crisis passes, socialists within the working class must not return to business as usual and continue to ignore the fundamental cause of this crisis: How capitalism relates to and exploits the natural world, especially in the production of food. We should start developing an understanding of this issue as well as what concrete steps can be taken now, under capitalism. These could include:
- Federal government funding for an educational campaign among farmers regarding regenerative farming
- Federal assistance to enable farmers to break the corn/monoculture addiction
- End the federal agriculture handouts to multi-millionaire agricultural corporations and urban billionaires, AKA federal farm assistance
- Link up rural/agricultural workers with the urban work force to rebuild the unions among agricultural workers.
- For direct links between agricultural workers around the world.
- For publicly run programs to bring millions of urban youth – and all workers – to the country side to participate in food production on regenerative farms. This step is vitally important to help the future working class start to become more aware of how we interact with the natural world.
- Expropriate agribusiness, from the giants like Monsanto to the giant farms, and plan food production under the democratic control and management of the agricultural workers, small farmers and the consumers themselves. Link this up with the small farmers who operate independently.