Skip to content

[:en]Prevent Agribusiness’s Pandemics with Food Sovereignty[:]

April 2020
[:en]As COVID-19 burns across the world, many of us are afraid. Between the economy crashing and the constant threat of illness and death, the instinct makes sense. But even now, we have to ask: why did this happen? What can we do to prevent another disaster like this?

For years, Grassroots International and our social movement partners have pushed for food sovereignty — the right to control our food systems, for the benefit of small farmers and working-class communities and not profit. For years, we have criticized massive agribusiness for destroying the environment, sending farmers deeper into poverty, and stealing land from Indigenous peoples.

But for this year’s International Day of Peasants’ Struggle on April 17th, we have even more reason to fight for food sovereignty. Corporate agriculture has played a major role in spreading deadly disease, especially the coronavirus.

To stop this pandemic, we need to radically transform our world. To prevent more pandemics in the future, food sovereignty needs to be a central demand today.

Does industrial agribusiness deserve blame?

In their quest to find the virus’s source, the American corporate media has focused on a “wet market” in Wuhan, in the Hubei province. They have blamed Chinese bat consumption on COVID-19 — turning a distorted, orientalist lens onto a rising rival to U.S. power. But they are not only peddling soft racism and passing off the virus as distinctly Chinese. They’re also quietly letting corporate agriculture off the hook.

As our ally the research group GRAIN reports, none of the animals tested at the Wuhan market tested positive for coronavirus. Leaks skirting past Chinese censors have now revealed the first cases of the virus occurred back in November 2019, well before the wet market cases. The virus likely jumped from animals to humans and spread silently, evolving via natural selection either before or after the jump.

Infectious disease geneticists at the Scripps Research Institute write that the original animal hosts for COVID-19 likely had lived tightly packed together, “to allow natural selection to proceed efficiently.” And the animals likely also shared enough genetic similarities for the virus to make the jump to humans.

According to GRAIN, factory pig farms, not bat markets, better fit the bill.

China: pig production hub

China has become a major hub for agribusiness and is projected to be home to four of the top ten global food companies by 2027. The country, and Wuhan’s Hubei province in particular, have become centers for pig farming. At the end of 2017, China had 435 million pigs, more than three times the number of hogs as the EU, its closest agro-production rival. Chinese corporate pig production has only consolidated since then, thanks to government backing.

Industrial production and pandemics

Even as China was building the largest pig production facilities in the world, some seven and even thirteen floors high, the threat of disease was looming:

“The [mega] farms aren’t without risk. The likelihood of spread of disease spreading in such close quarters is great, as farm manager Xu knows. Yangxiang reduces this by running each floor separately, with no staff movement between level and new pigs quarantined before being introduced to the building.”

Reassurances and minor safety measures didn’t stop reality from asserting itself. Within a year of the article above, a swine flu had ripped through China’s production chains, killing off half of their pig stock.

That industrial pig production could later produce a virus dangerous to humans has some precedent. GRAIN points to the 1998 Nipah virus outbreak in Malaysia. Similarly, the 1918 influenza outbreak very likely started on pig and chicken farms in Kansas (not Spain, as commonly assumed). And just three years ago, tens of thousands of pigs died from another coronavirus strain in Guangdong that “turned out to be 98 percent identical to a coronavirus found in horseshoe bats in a nearby cave.”

Pigs or not, we need an alternative to capitalist agriculture

The evidence is still not definitive that pig farming is directly to blame for this pandemic. But regardless, industrial agriculture likely still played a role, at least thanks to land destruction and its effects.

Rob Wallace, evolutionary biologist and author of Big Farms Make Big Flu, argues that capitalist development in China has brought together traditional exotic animal consumption and newer industrial production. Call it combined but uneven development. Expanding industrial food production and the resulting need for more land is pushing exotic animal producers further into untouched lands — where humans can come in contact with once-remote diseases and spread them across planet-wide production chains.

As Wallace recently wrote in a Facebook post about COVID-19:

“That [it] is splattering across host types means it’s not (just) about the specific host. It’s about the means by which populations of any living organism can be commoditized, turned into another reservoir beyond bats, and transported near and far, a threat to all others folded into propagating circuits of production.”

So, while the science is still out on whether bats, pigs, or pangolins first caused COVID-19, industrial agriculture and its quest for profit can still bear responsibility for destroying nature and endangering us all.

The alternative: food sovereignty and agroecology

To stop this pandemic, we need to radically transform our world. To prevent more pandemics in the future, food sovereignty needs to be a central demand today.

Rather than profit, food sovereignty prioritizes six principles:

  • The right to produce locally in order to feed people; the right of peasants and landless people to access land, water, seeds, and credit.
  • The right of farmers and peasants to produce food and the right of consumers to be able to decide what they consume, and how and by whom it is produced. 
  • The right of countries to protect themselves from too-low-priced agricultural and food imports.
  • The right to link food prices to production costs.
  • The right of the local population to take part in the agricultural policy choices.  
  • The right of women farmers to justice and dignity, as they play a major role in food production.

As Nyelini states, food sovereignty is not only about small producers and communities shaping their lives and food systems, with culture and nature in mind. The struggle for food sovereignty is a struggle for a world “free of oppression and inequality between men and women, peoples, racial groups, social and economic classes and generations.”

Our partners are organizing

Our partners, from Brazil to West Africa, from Haiti to Palestine, Mesoamerica and beyond, are organizing movements to win food sovereignty and implement these principles. They are fighting back against agribusiness encroachments on land and small farmers’ rights, defending territory, seeds and water, and demanding sustainable prices.

They are also supporting small farmers as they build examples of an alternative, communal food system — agroecology. In normal times, our partners conduct classes in sustainable agriculture. They share resources and create outlets for farmers to sell their crops. And though the pandemic and closed markets are threatening farmers’ livelihoods, our partners are responding with immediate social support and demands where governments have failed.

This April 17, International Day of Peasant Struggle, La Via Campesina has put out a call for us to #StayHomeButNotSilent, finding creative ways to mobilize and bring attention to the fact that small farmers feed the people. As they wrote, “Let us transform the windows, the terraces, the gardens and fields into our demonstration squares, turn our pots and pans into drums of resistance.”

Grassroots International, as a public foundation that accompanies social movements, will continue to stand with our partners. Together, we will continue responding to the pandemic and fighting to end the industrial food system that created it. Join us.[:]

Latest from the Learning Hub
Back To Top