The Production of Plagues

A recent discussion on the intersection between pandemics and industrialization brought on by the Chinese collective Chuang’s excellent piece ‘Social Contagion: Microbiological Class Warfare’ encouraged me to look further into the circumstances in which COVID-19 and other resilient pathogens, arose from and the correlation with large scale agribusiness, high intensity industrialization and the capitalist mode of production. Similar to Chuang I’m not so much interested in engaging in the kind of vulgar Marxism which places the blame for all the worlds ills at the feet of capitalism, rather given the seemingly random nature of pandemics I’m more interested as to whether there might be a less adventitious way of predicting their arrival.

One of the resources the group made ample use of was the work of Rob Wallace who’s collection of disturbing but meticulous accounts of research conducted on the front lines of food production ‘Big Farms Make Big Flu’ traced the connection between agribusiness and the production of pathogens. Alongside the book, Wallace has maintained a regularly updated blog which has continued his work of unearthing links between agribusiness, in 2017, he wrote perhaps one of the most succinct summaries of his findings in a blog post entitled ‘Ten Theses on Farming and Disease’. In the post he touched on ten factors that appeared to regularly contribute to the development of new pathogens the first of which is perhaps incredibly familiar to students of political economy.

Transformations within the sphere of production according to Wallace’s first theses, increased productivity and output, which subsequently caused prices to fall, these had the knock-on effect of requiring greater agricultural throughput as farmers struggled to maintain profits amidst falling wholesale prices. This was further exacerbated by changes within social or more specifically trading relations, spurring a new range of transnational trading relations bolstered by improved communications, storage and transportation technologies allowed for supply chains to reach beyond conglomerations of countries and span the world.
In accordance with Wallace’s second and third theses, there are numerous knock on effects caused by the necessity to increase agricultural throughput, a glut in farming products allowing for retailers and large multinational distribution centers to continue turning a profit by keeping wholesale prices low and increasingly a consolidation of farms managed by small and mid-level producers into larger businesses, backed by debt financed mechanization and land equity schemes. There is also a need for increasing purchase of synthetic products, which are used to maintain high throughput and the subsequent glut of products at the retail and distribution end of the chain

The consolidation of farms held by small and mid-level farm holders into larger establishments is regularly followed by a rise in mono-culture farming and declines in crop and species diversity. This is a crucial part of increasing the potential attack surface for viruses as monoculture farming has frequently proven itself to be susceptible to rapid transmission of pathogens both by the recycling of soil and the sheer density of identical species. As pointed out by Wallace, poor farming conditions also lead to the production of pathogens, bird influenza has frequently been linked to South China’s duck farming conditions and the proximity of these farm holdings to human habitation.

However this is not to place the production of the H5N1 entirely at the foot of the Chinese government, the vertically integrated model of poultry production is very much a global phenomena and has seen widespread adoption all over the world, particularly in the United States. Whilst often lauded as reducing potential avenues for contamination by relying on a common owner, this is very much dependent on high standards being maintained throughout the food processing process, regulatory adjustment and a lack of access to sanitation infrastructure however can lead to this being yet another avenue for pathogens to propagate throughout the poultry farming process.

Within this model of farming the control of outbreaks is similarly bound to the production of profit, hence more fundamental changes to the farming process to halt or prevent the the spread of outbreaks such as devolving the production of of poultry to smaller, domestic farms, the diversification of genetic monoculture stock into separate heirloom varieties or the restoration of the habitat of migratory birds who have often served as vectors of disease largely not being under consideration when fighting the spread of pathogens. Instead strategies for countering pathogen outbreaks, largely comes down to artificial means, such as the implementation of industrial scale vaccination, pesticides and antibacterial agents, the resultant effect often leading to surviving pathogens being hardier and more resilient. The subsequent transference of these pathogens to new monocultures by way of global supply chains once again leading to new outbreaks of disease. 

One dimension I’ve not touched on but is often key is the nature of primitive accumulation and it’s role in the production of pathogens, the seizure of land from indigenous peoples, in order to further expand large-scale farms pushes former subsistence farmers further into the fringes of human habitation relying on various methods to procure their means of survival. The infamous wet markets, which in actual fact are replicated all over the world, in that the sale of various livestock occurs in many different contexts have often been blamed for the spread of pathogens, however the wet markets initially arose as a way to procure meat at low prices due to the inaccessibility of these subsistence methods.

Similar patterns have been witnessed in Africa where the increasing size of palm oil extractions centers, driven by the commercialization of land by organizations such as SOGUIPAH has pushed inhabitants of these areas further into the wilderness in order to procure their means of survival. These centers have lead to new resting zones for bats leading to increasing crossover between newly proletarianized farmers and Ebola-bearing fruit bats with many reporting being exposed to scratches or occasionally bites. Similarly the proximity of the bats to food stores, has also been a vector transmission as Ebola has also been transmitted through bat urine again linking the destruction of the bats usual habitat to subsequent cross contamination.

In a similar fashion to the democratization of economy often linked to crises of capital accumulation it appears that the production of pandemics can also be arrested by similar methods.

At the core of the solutions proposed by Wallace is the returning of farming to independent producers, cooperative trusts, indigenous communities and local supporters. In the long term a fundamental reorganization of agricultural production is required, combining diversification of species with a program of global rewilding alongside adoption of lab-derived protein substitutes and other innovative methods of creating food products. Another crucial point is the current methods by which vaccines are produced and distributed, currently viral isolates are provided, for free, by the WHO, to private producers of vaccines who sell the resultant products at cost to various countries, often meaning that developing countries are often not able to procure these medicines. A fully subsidized mechanism for providing these vaccines on a global scale, given the increasingly global nature of these pandemics is, at this point surely a necessity.¬†Wallace ended ‘Big Farms, Big Flu’ with a short anecdote detailing how a study in Minnesota tracked the spread of the H5N2 to domestic farming practices.

Whilst the study seemed reasonable, Wallace honed in on how the questions asked left out the broader economic context in which these practices occurred in. This again should be a familiar story to most students of Marxian economy, in that these practices occur in a context where if it were not for the adoption of certain techniques, in capitalist economy usually improvements within the forces of production and/or human resources, a capitalist would rapidly go out of business. In agribusiness the adoption of synthetic pesticides is aligned with a similar incentive to compete and produce a profit the negative externalities in this case being falling hygiene standards, and ultimately pathogenic outbreaks. 


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