COVID-19 is not an isolated phenomenon. Industrial agriculture, forestry and animal husbandry have accelerated and greatly expanded the spread of life-threatening viruses. Food production based on natural balances is certainly possible. Sylvopastoral animal husbandry is a mixture of animal husbandry and forestry away from the disastrous monocultures. Latin American agronomists Miguel A. Altieri and Clara Inés Nicholls demonstrate the potential of this fundamentally different approach to our food production.
Energy and water scarcity, environmental pollution, climate change, economic inequality, insecure food supplies, etc. We cannot tackle the majority of these global problems separately. On the contrary, they are closely linked. If one problem worsens, the whole system will be affected and other problems will worsen as well.
As never before, the current pandemic reveals the structural essence of our world: human, animal, plant and environmental health. The corona crisis warns humanity to rethink the capitalist way of acting, our society, which is heavily based on consumption. We must also strongly question the way in which we deal with nature. We need a comprehensive solution to the current crisis, addressing the root causes of the world’s visible socio-environmental vulnerability.
Agroecology provides an inspiring example of a powerful structural approach. In the current crisis context, this system helps to investigate links between agriculture and health. In particular, it is an example of an agricultural method that can promote human well-being, as opposed to industrial agriculture, which poses major health risks.
Ecological effects of industrial agriculture on human health
For decades, many (agro) ecologists denounced the consequences of industrial agriculture for human health and ecosystems. Large-scale monocultures today cover approximately 80 percent of the world’s agricultural land (1.5 billion hectares). However, their genetic homogeneity, and thus low ecological diversity, make monocultures vulnerable to weed infestations, insect invasions, epidemic diseases and now also recently to climate change.
To combat pests, farmers worldwide spray about 2.3 billion pounds of pesticides annually, of which only less than 1 percent hits their target. Most pesticides end up in the soil, in the air and in the water. In the U.S. alone, environmental and public health damage amounts to more than $ 10 billion annually. These figures are still silent about the approximately 26 million people worldwide who suffer from pesticide poisoning. Nor do they take into account the health costs related to acute toxic effects caused by residues in our food.
Many insecticides kill beneficial organisms. Pollinating insects, natural pest control agents, organisms such as butterflies and beetles, birds and soil life continue to deteriorate in agricultural areas. However, each of these organisms provides important ecological services. They can therefore play in favor of agriculture.
Biodiversity loss costs hundreds of billions of dollars annually, both in crop production and human health. It also stimulates the (negative) spiral of pesticide use. It only enhances the effects on humans and ecosystems. This is evidenced by the emergence of 586 insect and mite species that have become resistant to more than 325 insecticides. It indicates that the resources for “modern” industrial agriculture are exhausted. These resistances apply not only to crop pests, but also to human diseases such as dengue fever or malaria.
Much has been written about industrial livestock farming, especially where livestock is grown in feedlots. These animals are particularly vulnerable to viruses such as flu and bird flu. Large companies that keep tens of thousands of chickens or thousands of pigs in the name of efficient protein production have thus created the perfect environment and conditions for viruses. They can mutate there, become more resistant and eventually spread. For example, in the US, more than 50 million chickens and turkeys died from bird flu.
Industrial animal husbandry methods (confinement, exposure to high concentrations of ammonia, hydrogen sulfide from manure) make animals more susceptible to viral infections. Viruses, which mutate constantly, eventually lead to the next human pandemic. That was already the case in April 2009. Then the new flu strain H1N1 came to life which was dubbed the “Mexican flu” and quickly spread around the world to eventually reach pandemic status.
The arbitrary and widespread use of antibiotics and growth hormones is another factor that can cause pandemics in the livestock industry. Enrique Murgueitio of CIPAV (a Colombian organization that has been researching sustainable agricultural systems since 1986) states that “antibiotics and growth hormones are polluting and expensive. The worst effect, however, is that they create the conditions for drug resistance. Like other viruses awaiting another pandemic, super bacteria (a collective term for bacteria resistant to almost all antibiotics) such as Pseudomonas aeruginosa, Escherichia coli, Staphylococcus aureus and Salmonella are in the queue and there are hardly any means to fight them. fight. “
Of course, there are other ways of growing livestock. Sylvopastoral systems are an example of this. They are based on agro-ecological principles, ensure healthy production, restore the landscape and are less conducive to epidemics. After all, they exclude the use of antibiotics (except in emergencies). The farmed animals also live outdoors in mixed forest-pasture landscapes with a high biodiversity. They live on natural food from healthy soils, which strengthens their immune system.
However, the situation is deteriorating because biodiverse agro-landscapes have to make way for large areas with monocultures, which requires a lot of deforestation. Moreover, monocultures stimulate the “migration” of organisms from the forest to the cities, which can lead to “new” diseases.
Evolutionary biologist Rob Wallace previously stated that: “In the past, diseases were kept in check by forests that went through a very long evolution. However, new pathogens are now released, threatening the entire world. Agriculture driven by capital takes the place of healthy forests and natural biotopes. Monocultures provide the optimal conditions for pathogens. They, in turn, can develop more virulent and contagious phenotypes ”.
In other words, pathogens that used to be “trapped” in natural biotopes are now spreading to industrial fields, to industrial livestock farming, and eventually they come to us. The foundation is a landscape, disturbed by industrial agriculture and agrochemical and biotechnological innovations.
For example, an increase in deforestation in the Amazon region of only 4 percent has increased the number of malaria cases by nearly 50 percent. The current pandemic warns us that more infectious diseases will emerge. Not only are the animals that we put in unhealthy, overcrowded industrial farms increasingly susceptible to infectious diseases, but also wild animals that live in degraded or devastated ecosystems. Economic pursuit of profit has violated the basic laws of ecology.
Decreasing diversity in cultivated crops versus human health
The declining diversity of crops in the agricultural landscape is another danger that the intensification of agriculture poses to public health. Although humans can feed on more than 2,500 plant species, most of them have only three diets: wheat, rice and corn. Globally, those types provide 50 percent of all calories consumed.
Nevertheless, more than 850 million people don’t have access to enough calories. On the other hand, more than 2 billion people (especially children) have to deal with “hidden hunger”: they do absorb enough calories, but with too few vitamins and minerals to be able to talk about good health and development.
The low number of crops that feed the world raises concerns about both our diet in general and the resilience of the global food system. Crop diversity, on the other hand, appears to be the key to adaptation to climate change. However, the loss of crop diversity and additional homogenization of agroecosystems have important implications for ecological functions and services. The sustainability of the food system also feels the effects: the cost of a failed homogeneous cultivated crop weighs heavily on food security. It also influences precarious access to food and the health of the poorest and most vulnerable people.
Michael Pollan previously said that “the entire US food supply has undergone a“ cornification ”(the switch to” corn “= corn and all its derivatives). The majority of the corn consumed is even invisible because it has been incorporated into the food on the one hand or has been used as animal feed on the other before it reaches the consumer.
“Most of the chickens, pigs and cattle we breed live on a diet based on maize (mainly genetically modified breeds). Most of the soft drinks and snacks we consume in the U.S. and many parts of Latin America contain high fructose corn syrup. However, there appears to be a link between corn syrup and the current epidemics of obesity (medically worrying obesity) and type II diabetes.
In developing countries, the so-called “modernization” of agriculture has led to even worse food security than before. A globalized food system and free trade agreements disrupted traditional rural communities and their diversified production systems. Many countries are swapping their rich, varied traditional diets for heavily processed, energy-intensive foods and drinks, which contain very few micronutrients (small amounts of minerals, vitamins and other substances). We see obesity and chronic diseases only increase there.
Agroecology and a new food system
The vulnerability of the globalized food system is becoming exposed, especially as governments have imposed trade and travel restrictions and COVID-19 paralyzes entire cities. More trade and transport restrictions could limit the influx of imported food, either from other countries or from other domestic regions. However, this has disastrous consequences for access to food, especially for the poorest areas.
This is a dire situation for countries that need to import more than 50 percent of their food. Access to food is also critical for cities with more than 5 million inhabitants. After all, they must import at least 2,000 tons of food per day in order to feed their inhabitants. In addition, food must travel an average of 1,000 kilometers to reach the consumer. It is clear that this is not a sustainable food system. Moreover, this method of food production also appears to be vulnerable to external factors such as natural disasters or pandemics.
In the light of such global trends, agroecology has received more attention in the past three decades. It can provide a basis for an agricultural transition as the potential offers many social, economic and environmental benefits to the rural population. Urban areas can also provide food in a fair and sustainable manner through agro-forestry.
However, it is necessary to promote these new and local food systems. Abundant production can provide healthy and affordable food for a growing urbanized population. It remains a difficult challenge, of course, with soil getting worse, with expensive fuel, erratic fuel prices and limited water and nitrogen supplies. In addition, strong climate change will also entail social tensions and economic uncertainties.
The best system capable of meeting future challenges is undoubtedly one based on this agroecology. His principles offer a high diversity and resilience. In addition, they can yield decent production quantities. Agroecology proposes to restore the landscapes around farms (restorative agriculture). This enriches the ecology and its numerous functions: natural pest control, water and soil protection, climate regulation, biological regulation, etc. Landscape restoration as a basis of agroecology also offers “ecological firebreaks” that keep pathogens within their natural habitat. This way they are prevented from “escaping”.
Many small-scale farmers have restored their production capacity by promoting agro-ecological principles and practices. The results are correspondingly: agricultural yields are increasing and diversity is improving. This is followed by associated positive effects such as food security and environmental integration. Ecological restoration is key to food sovereignty of many communities, especially as smallholder farmers produce between 50 and 70 percent of the food consumed in most countries. However, they cover only 30 percent of the world’s agricultural land.
On an urbanized planet, urban agriculture based on agro-ecological principles appears to be a sustainable alternative to provide more food security. These principles increase the production of fresh fruit, vegetables and some animal products. At the local level, it provides food for families, especially in marginalized communities.
Urban food production has doubled worldwide in just over 15 years and this expansion will continue. It is only now that the strategic importance of locally produced food is beginning to be recognized. After all, we strengthen our immune system when we eat locally and nutritiously. This may make us even more resistant to a variety of threats, including infectious viruses like COVID-19.
Agroecology has the potential to provide food to rural and urban communities at the local level. This is important in a world facing climate change and other disruptions, such as pandemics. We need support to strengthen agroecology and to optimize, restore and improve the production capacities of local and urban smallholders.
In order to exploit this potential, we need to widely disseminate successful local agroecological initiatives through farmers training. We must establish agroecological lighthouses, as it were, revive traditional systems and manage entire areas agroecologically.
In addition, to improve the economic viability of such efforts, we must also develop fair, local and regional market opportunities according to the principles of the solidarity economy. The consumer plays an essential role in this. It must understand that buying food is an ecological and political act. Consumers should be aware that they support local farmers rather than a company food chain and they support sustainability and socio-environmental resilience. That will take a lot of time if this food transition depends only on the government, but anyone can accelerate this process: make choices that help small farmers, the planet and ultimately our own health every day.
The global food system is collapsing. Rural and urban social movements must work together to create a breeding ground for the transition to agroecology. Let’s work together for a more socially just, economically viable, environmentally friendly and healthy agriculture. It is wise to think about ecosystems that sustain the economy (and our health).
COVID-19 reminds us that our irreverent way of dealing with nature (and with the diversity of plants and animals) has profound consequences. The damage to the planet also affects us as humans. Let’s hope that the current crisis will help humanity to lay the foundation for a new world, a world where we treat nature in a respectful way.
The article La agroecología en tiempos del COVID-19 by Miguel A. Altieri y Clara Inés Nicholls appeared on the website of the Latin American Council for Social Sciences CLASCO (Consejo Latinoamericano de Ciencias Sociales). This organization brings together the knowledge and experience of 284 research and educational institutions in 21 Latin American countries and the Caribbean. Translation by Rubi Block.