In this post Dr Joanna Miller Smallwood (Sussex University ESRC/SENSS Post Doctoral Fellow and Non-Practising Solicitor) and Dr Izabela Delabre (Sussex University Business School Research Fellow and Sussex Sustainability Research Programme) highlight the relationship the current COVID-19 pandemic crisis has with unsustainable food production and consumption.
SARS-CoV-2 and links to biodiversity
2020 is a critical year for biodiversity and the current COVID-19 pandemic clearly highlights how inextricably linked human welfare and nature are. Preparations are in full swing to form a new global plan to tackle the alarming rate of biodiversity loss worldwide, the so-called “sixth mass extinction”. Most of the world’s states are preparing this year to agree on a new set of global targets to halt the ongoing decimation of the world’s biodiversity. So far, global biodiversity targets have largely been unmet, arguably failing to gain enough political or societal attention for sufficient action to be taken to bend the curve of biodiversity loss. Aptly, the 2020 Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) Conference of the Parties (COP) was scheduled to be held in Kunming, China in late autumn and the dawning of a new post-2020 strategic plan for biodiversity draws our attention back to reflect on the main drivers of biodiversity loss, including unsustainable food production and consumption patterns.
COVID-19 is an infectious disease caused by severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2). The SARS-CoV-2 pandemic is a tragic example of what can happen when social-ecological systems are disturbed, with detrimental consequences. The current food system, dependent on a model of industrialized farming practices to provide large quantities of cheap food for a growing global population, has devastating impacts on important wildlife habitats and biodiversity. The current pandemic could be a cautionary tale of things to come, depending on the lessons we take away from this global crisis. Unless significant changes are made in production and consumption patterns, and changes to the fundamental nature of our relationship with non-human species, we should anticipate further pandemics and other catastrophes resulting from malfunctioning ecosystems.
As we struggle to come to terms with the current pandemic sweeping the globe, an opportunity is provided in our ‘isolation’ and ‘lock down’ for reflection on the way some of us (often as a result of political-economic systems) live. The upshot of the capitalist system, which manifests on a global scale, results not only in inequalities in access to commodities such as food and water but in exposure to viruses, access to vaccines and health care. Further, there are issues of inter-species inequalities, humans are just one species among so many on our amazing planet, yet our actions negatively affect other species. This is particularly visible in food production and consumption systems. Increasingly decadent lifestyles in high income countries and the perpetual drive of a global elite to have more and more, for less and less, is pushing the boundaries of our planet and threatening the nature of our and other species’ ‘safe operating space’, as planetary boundaries are transgressed and people and animals exploited. At what cost do we place this incessant desire for more? We are playing for high stakes and risking not only the survival of countless non-human species but also our own species – including unequal impacts on the most vulnerable in our societies – as the current pandemic highlights.
The likely origins of SARS-CoV-2 is from Chinese ‘wet markets’ selling live and dead animals for human consumption. SARS-CoV-2 is a zoonotic virus which can jump from the species it evolved with (wild animals), onto new hosts. The pressures on land use, habitat destruction, as well as illegal trade in wildlife and climate change all lead to the increased spread of viruses such as SARS-CoV-2. It is important to note, that SARS-CoV-2 is not the first, and most likely will not be the last such virus with the potential to form a pandemic.
The picture of why SARS-CoV-2 has emerged and is now thriving globally is much bigger. The probable starting point of SAS-CoV-2 was in Wuhan, China where it arrived and spread to humans at the wet market in one of two ways: either through illegal trafficking of wild creatures, for their use as traditional medicine, food (or in some cases pets); or through legal trade in farmed ‘wild’ species. In recent times, China has seen a huge change in its farming practices. Frequently through processes of land-grabbing, small scale farmers have become marginalised by huge industrialised farms (owned by large agribusinesses and often supported through foreign investment) to grow food for China and global markets. As a result, smallholders have been driven to farm wild species, such as high-value pangolins, in order to make a living. As small farmers have been pushed off the most productive land by industrialised farms, to the edge of forests to farm on uncultivated land, the natural evolution of viruses such as SARS-CoV-2 (and nearly two decades previously SARS-CoV) began by making the leap from one host to another (e.g. bat to pangolin). The virus was then transported to the wet markets, and there the second leap was made from non-human to human species. However, as Morens et al point out, despite its origins in China this is a global concern not solely a ‘Chinese’ problem (as it has been referred to in populist discourse).
Global Production Patterns
In our drive to want more for less, the dominant use of factory farming has become a key way to provide cheap food at the expense of biodiversity, animal welfare and – as it has also become strikingly apparent – human welfare. Intensively farmed animals of similar genetic makeup, living in very close proximity to each other provide a playground for zoonotic viruses where they can mutate and spread between each other, wild animals and humans, as has been seen not only with SARS -CoV-2 but also avian flu, including H7N9 and H5N1, and swine flu, H1N1. In order to safeguard against future pandemics, it is paramount that efforts are made to curb the spread of flu viruses through intensive farming practices.
Industrialised farming is not only a concern of China but a hegemonic global concern and recognised by key international treaties such as the 1992 UN Convention for Biological Diversity (CBD) and high-level political agreements such as the 2015 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Both contain targets and goals which aim to push states towards sustainable food production and consumption patterns that account for the importance and value of biodiversity. The push for agricultural expansion and intensification is one of the biggest threats to biodiversity globally due to habitat loss and the push for pesticide-dependent, industrial farming systems.
Worryingly, the recent IPBES global assessment shows that little or no progress has been made towards achieving sustainable consumption and production, largely due to the inordinate increase in demand for consumption. A key issue is governance and who is governed. States are, to some extent, held responsible to fulfil global targets and pledges, but the industries that advertently or inadvertently, create the conditions leading to such pandemics are not held sufficiently accountable. Here, the political stance is that making cheap food at any cost is deemed more important than the healthy functioning of ecosystems or social responsibility. However, when these fundamental concerns are not added into the neoliberal capitalist equation, we really are playing with fire. This is evident in the context of zoonotic viruses as we are witnessing now and more broadly. As Rob Wallace states, ‘chicken isn’t cheap if it kills millions’. In his book Big farms make big flu, Wallace argues that agribusinesses need to adopt sustainable production practices and be held to account for higher ecological, social and epidemiological sustainability. Changes in production and consumption patterns are also important in broader terms – the importance of nature (and the understanding that we are part of nature too!) needs to be fully taken on board and respected in political, economic and societal spheres in order to maintain a healthy, functioning planet.
Global Consumption Patterns
There is no doubt that many intensive production practices are clear drivers of biodiversity loss, ethically and morally challenging, and can lead to the creation and spread of harmful and constantly changing viruses such as SARS-CoV-2, SARS-Cov, H7N9, H5N1 and H1N1 to name but a few. As well as holding large scale agribusiness, supply chains, and governments to account, there is a need – and opportunity – to reflect on our consumption patterns and how we are connected with food production. While food access is highly uneven, overall global food consumption is rising as the world seeks to feed a rapidly growing population. Increasing wealth for many middle and low-income countries has led to a move away from traditional diets to growing meat consumption (see Figure 1). Godfray et al. (2018) show that the average amount of meat consumed per person globally has nearly doubled in the past 50 years, from around 23kg in 1961 to 43kg in 2014, and middle-income countries, in particular China and others in east Asia, are seeing rapid rises. A UN report predicts an increase in global meat consumption of 76% by mid-century. This raises serious questions as to how, or if, these gargantuan levels of meat consumption can be achieved in a sustainable or ethical manner that avoids the inherent risks of future spread of zoonotic viruses through farming practices. SARS-CoV-2 is by no means the worst that can be expected, the virus H7N9 kills a third of those infected.
There are clear disparities and vast inequalities in food consumption globally. Figures from the UN show that there are 2 billion overweight and obese people in the world, and in alarming contrast, 821 million people are hungry today and an additional 2 billion people expected to be undernourished by 2050. In spite of this, and the goal to achieve zero hunger by 2050 across the planet, the planet simply cannot support a consumption model in which everyone eats the level of meat and animal products currently consumed in higher income countries. Our diets and consumption of food needs to be re-thought.
Chinese wet markets and other intensive farming practices raise serious animal welfare concerns which also reflect humans lack of connection with nature and understanding of non-human species. Alasdair Cochrane, in his cutting edge book, Should Animals have Political Rights? stresses the need for animals to not only be protected from cruelty of individuals, but also from structures such as industrialised animal agriculture, that cause them harm. He pushes further than solely the protection of animal rights but argues for their democratic representation, for example, through dedicated representatives in political decision-making fora.
Ingrid J. Visseren-Hamakers makes a strong case for an 18th Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) on animal health, welfare and rights and highlights the need to mainstream the consideration of the individual animal into our thinking on sustainable development, including in relation to sustainable food production and consumption. Visseren-Hamakers argues that:
“We cannot ignore the interests of billions of animals while developing sustainable food systems, enabling sustainable consumption and production, combatting and adapting to climate change, and rethinking our strategies for the conservation and sustainable and equitable use of biodiversity”.
Some may argue such notions are extreme, however we argue that the morality and sustainability of current political and societal patterns around food production and consumption are highly questionable and see the incorporation of animal rights as a basic prerequisite to sustainable development and the bare minimum that is needed. If the intrinsic value of non-human species is fully respected within political, economic and social systems then there would be multiple benefits to our species too, including a safeguard against future global pandemics.
The time is upon us to shift the trajectory of this tale, 2020 is a year in which important global decisions are being made by states, in preparation and during negotiations for a post- 2020 strategic plan for biodiversity. Ambitions in relation to sustainable food production and consumption need to be bold and include sufficient means of accountability, in order to challenge increasingly industrialised farming practices on the grounds of sustainability, equity, public health, non-human health and welfare. Alongside government action, agribusinesses, supply chains and individuals need to play their part and re-think how food can be produced and consumed in a safer and fairer way.