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Rob Wallace: Agroecology is Key for Stopping the Next COVID

Rob Wallace, whom The Nation has dubbed the “epidemiologist who predicted the pandemic,” speaks with Grassroots’s Chris Morrill about his work on COVID-19. Wallace argues that agroecology and food sovereignty movements like our partner La Via Campesina are key for stopping the next pandemics.

In your books Big Farms Make Big Flu and Dead Epidemiologists: On the Origins of COVID-19, you go into detail about how corporate agriculture and capitalist development have led to pandemics. Could you briefly summarize “zoonotic spillover” and your core argument?

Pathogens are deadly viruses and bacteria and other microbes. For the most part, they stick to their host species as they have evolved to solve their host’s immune response. But because so many trillions of new progeny are produced every few days around the world, even a small proportion “spills over” into other species.

Many pathogens in wild animals and livestock spill over into humans. Sometimes human pathogens spill over in the other direction. By a combination of rapid evolution and chance, some of these wayward pathogens succeed in their new host species. As we humans haven’t evolved immune defenses to these new pathogens, a spillover event can lead to an explosion of new cases and deaths. Sometimes even so far as to infect millions around the world as a pandemic.

«The lack of diversity in corporate herds and flocks selects for greater deadliness in pathogens.»

Our team argues that corporate agriculture and capitalist development are promoting a spike in such spillover events on two accounts. First, by cutting into the last of natural forests worldwide and extending agricultural supply lines from such forests out to regional capitals and by trade beyond, pathogens that were once isolated to local disease ecologies are suddenly released to explore and evolve in new populations around the world.

Second, corporate agriculture replaces regional agrobiodiversity with monoculture livestock and poultry in the billions, producing all sorts of food for flu (and other pathogens). The lack of diversity in corporate herds and flocks selects for greater deadliness in pathogens. It’s those disease strains that can replicate through so many industrial livestock fastest—causing the worst infections one animal to the next—that win the evolutionary race.

In your work you’ve referenced how La Via Campesina and the food sovereignty movement generally serve as an alternative to corporate agriculture. Why have you highlighted these and what do you think the role of such grassroots movements can be for preventing future pandemics?

Disease resilience place-to-place requires the levels of agrobiodiversity on-farm and across food landscapes that industrial production rejects as a matter of principle. Supporting a diversity of livestock and poultry on any single farm and across landscapes produces the immune firebreaks that keep deadly pathogens from evolving the infectivity and deadliness to wipe out a region’s entire agricultural economic base.

Responsive population immunity also depends on food animals being able to reproduce on-site, permitting animal immunities to track circulating pathogens in real time. In contrast, industrial production depends on offshoring breeding at the grandparent level for market-based characteristics like fast growth and larger proportions rather than for responding to the place-specific contingencies that outbreaks represent.

«We can’t… box out the deadliest pathogens without returning decision-making to local farming communities.»

How do we get to more disease-resistant food landscapes? We can’t engage in the agricultural practices that box out the deadliest pathogens without returning decision-making to local farming communities. We’re talking about community socioeconomic resilience, circular economies, community land trusts, integrated cooperative supply networks, food justice, reparations, and reversing deeply historical race, class, and gender trauma.

And there are successful examples from around the world. Political agroecologist Jahi Chappell wrote about Belo Horizonte, the Brazilian city of 2.5 million people, which developed a regional food system that subsidized outlying farmers to grow food agroecologically, protecting local forests and supplying city residents with nutritious food at neighborhood markets and municipal restaurants from which usurious middlemen were removed.

It’s our group’s contention that it’s these kinds of food systems—based in the farmer autonomy and community control that La Via Campesina places front and center—that help produce the probiotic ecologies that keep deadly pathogens from emerging in the first place.

As we start the third year of COVID as an official pandemic, what’s the most important thing people should know about the global situation?

We’re entering a third year of the pandemic in part because the global capitalist regime that runs the world would rather get back to the business of expropriating land and labor that brought about COVID-19 in the first place than intervene in such a way as to stop the virus.

The world’s governments treat the capitalism that helped spring the virus out of commoditized forests as realer than the ecologies and epidemiologies upon which the global system depends. Each new variant that has since emerged—Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta, Omicron—is presented as the beginning of COVID’s end, resetting the next round of denialism, instead of alerting us that in reality we are caught in a continuing cycle of viral evolution.

Each “surprise” that the virus refuses to cooperate with the system’s expectations that the pandemic will just end because we want it to also serves to protect the system from the implications of its refusal to act. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. As we pretend to be repeatedly surprised, and therefore can’t do anything about COVID, we must get back to the prime directive of enriching the rich.

«What does it mean that acting globally against the pandemic is thought to cause more damage to our society than the pandemic itself? Doesn’t that say that there is something terribly wrong about society?»

From the virus’ vantage point, the resulting half-measures in public health that governments around the world are pursuing serve the virus as both an escape hatch out of those control efforts and as selection pressure to evolve new adaptations. It’s exactly the kind of governance that leads to the worst of epidemiological outcomes, including greater transmission and vaccine resistance for those few with access to the COVID vaccine.

If we wish to get out of this trap, we workers and peasants have to organize together in favor of a full-spectrum intervention that drives the COVID virus under a population threshold that will lead it into burning out. That requires us all to reject not only Washington’s and London’s employer-first governance, but also the core model of our economy around which civilization is organized. That’s no small matter, of course, but with climate change and other pandemics also in the wings, it may represent our sole option out.

Think about it. What does it mean that acting globally against the pandemic is thought to cause more damage to our society than the pandemic itself? Doesn’t that say that there is something terribly wrong about society?

What actions should we be taking inside movements and in solidarity with movements to address the pandemic?

We need to act in global solidarity at both ends of COVID’s emergence. We must support the kinds of efforts that food sovereignty movements and La Via Campesina are pursuing in favor of peasant rights. Along the way, such work helps promote and protect the kinds of food systems and “natural economies” that in their diversity help keep the deadly pathogens that do spill over into human populations from spreading out to infect the world.

Big picture, short-term survival now requires long-term thinking. Otherwise we are left with the short-term thinking that placed us on multiple environmental and epidemiological precipices to begin with. It will take time to transition out of a capital-led food production that is destroying the very planet we need to regenerate food for many more generations. What alternatives might work best depend on a number of community-specific circumstances: biogeology, water availability, soil type, demographics, cultural histories—the very stuff of vibrant farming communities that capitalist production tried to remove as “extraneous” factors. 

On the other end, once pathogens like COVID-19 emerge, we must implement a program of integrated pharmaceutical and nonpharmaceutical interventions that removes the epidemiological space these pathogens need to evolve vaccine resistance and other adaptive life history changes. In this case, if not the Zero COVID programs some countries have instituted, governments and communities should implement timely, consistent, and collaborative programs across ministries or affinity groups that drive the virus under its local rates of replacement.

More proactive and structural approaches to public health interventions must be pursued to help us exit the rolling trap of one new COVID variant followed by another. Such efforts will also help prevent all those other new pathogens now circulating from spilling over into all of humanity.