COVID 19: A Cautionary Tale of the Dangers of Unsustainable Food Production and Consumption

Picture jo and field
Joanna Miller Smallwood
Izabela Delabre

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.

Meat consumption

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.

Inter-species respect

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.



The politics of evidence: ‘Doing nothing’ about LGBT health inequities by the WHO

Po-Han Lee

In this post Dr Po-Han Lee (Doctoral Tutor in Sociology and Law at the University of Sussex) summarises key findings from his recently completed PhD in Sociology, which examines international inaction in the face of the health disparities of sexual and gender minorities.


How is ‘nothing’ produced and justified, and how is it functioning? Here, I will take a multilateral debate in the World Health Organisation (WHO) over the issues regarding health inequities experienced by sexual and gender minorities (SGMs) as an example.[1]

On request by the US and Thailand, the WHO Secretariat produced a report on LGBT health in May 2013 for the Executive Board (EB) – the organ authorised by the WHO Constitution to adopt policy agenda for the WHO governing bodies especially the annual World Health Assemblies. That was the very first time that the LGBT health issue had been put on the table in the WHO governing body. The debate was an intense one, lasting more than six hours, and in the end, the agenda item was removed from the final agenda, and kept only as a footnote. In May 2015, the footnote was deleted for good, and after that, an interstate informal consultation was pursued by Colombia.[2] However, the working group failed to achieve any consensus either. Since then, the topic has never been brought up again.

Geographically, the WHO divides the world into six regions – each has its own governing body and a committee with regard to health affairs on the regional level. The degree of development of LGBT health issues varies across different regions. The Pan American Health Organisation is the most active one; it has recognised sexual orientation as a social determinant of health (Res. CD50.R8). It adopted another resolution (CD52.R6) addressing the causes of LGBT health disparities in October 2013 after the discussion in the EB was suspended. In the Regional Committee for Europe, it was discussed in the context of the Health 2020 policy framework. LGBT populations are referenced only in relation to HIV/AIDS response and prevention by the Regional Committees for the Western Pacific and for South-East Asia. In the Regional Committees for the Eastern Mediterranean and for Africa, nothing is mentioned at all.

At the debate between members of the Executive Board in 2013, the reasons for removing the agenda item included:

  1. a lack of capacity for the WHO to address politically sensitive human rights issues, which had been addressed by the UN human rights bodies;
  2. a lack of consensus between states on what health issues should be prioritised;
  3. a lack of a universally agreed definition of affected communities, ‘LGBT people’ in this case; and,
  4. a lack of evidence regarding the existence of the health inequities in question.

In those meetings, member states employed many human rights notions, but eventually they decided that the WHO should step away from other human rights concerns, as if the right-to-health issues could be addressed in isolation. This suggests that these states were not committed to the so-called human rights-based approach to global health governance, although they had spoken a great deal in the language of human rights.

Can no-evidence say anything?

The WHO member states involved in the debate in the end made an unusual decision, which was to ‘do nothing’ about the health disparities experienced by SGMs. That decision is particularly relevant to the power of official and expert discourses regarding knowledge production in health research. That is, the inaction was taken and justified based on the fact that the epidemiological science had not proven the existence of SGM health inequities yet.

Among those ‘lacks’ mentioned above, I will focus on the assertion of lacking evidence. In this regard, in terms of theoretical and methodological approaches, the sociological interrogations concerning ‘absence’ and ‘ignorance’ would be useful; they have critically identified the symbolic meanings of non-existence and non-knowledge as well as the socio-political organising and functioning of such. Deconstructing the notion that ‘we don’t have enough proof’ enables us to argue that what ‘no evidence’ shows is no less than what evidence does.

On the one hand, it is that ‘queer trouble’ makes a comprehensive survey concerning the health of SGMs almost impossible. Out of the different understandings regarding sexuality and gender between health and social scientists, it is very difficult to define SGM populations across societies. In short, there are too many ways of naming queer people due to their diverse locationalities considering the dominant culture of the place where they live. This conceptual difficulty informs us that, on the one hand, the social determinants of health may be universal, but are context-sensitive as applied, and on the other, related studies are hardly achievable without generalising the population under research. Even the researchers themselves would have to acknowledge this partiality in the research process.

It is true that SGM health is far from simply a scientific question, especially if we consider the situations in which SGM members are afraid to see a doctor and face persecution, let alone voluntarily accepting to be studied. This has exposed the limits of evidence-based public health when the target populations are hard to define, and even harder to reach in many societies. That is to say, the nexus between the lack of evidence and the lack of definition of queer populations seems inextricable.

Yet, what counts as ‘evidence’?

Yet, it would also be irresponsible to simply blame the lack of evidence on ‘queer trouble’. The real problem in regard to the underrepresentation of queer communities and the misinterpretation of their health information should be uncovered. Here, I am arguing that, other than the troubling definition of queer people, the intended ignorance – due to non-recognition (omissive) and misrecognition (commissive) of SGM communities and hence non-production of knowledge concerning their health – plays a greater role in reinforcing the social and health injustices against them. That is to ask: What counts as evidence? Could it be that the lack of evidence manifests the evidence of health inequity? Namely, the socially constructed ignorance can be seen as the evidence of health injustice. Therefore, it is important to know how not-knowing functions.

In the absence of knowledge that meets professional standards, we shall consider the knowledge coming from local communities. The selection process of and resource allocation with regard to conducting health research may result in the invisibility of the non-recognised and the misrecognised. For example, a Bangladeshi activist stated at the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association’s Asian Regional Conference (ILGA-Asia) of 2015: ‘Health issues of hijra are always related to social discrimination. We are often denied access to seeing a doctor.’ A Thai transman activist expressed concerns about health professionals’ insensitivity: ‘Most trans health information is accessible only to transwomen…doctors just don’t know what to do with us and our health issues’.[3]

These narratives are rarely documented and used as evidence for health inequity, but they call on us to rethink the absence of evidence in certain places, as reported by the Bangladeshi and Thai governments, for instance. In this light, the tolerance of no-evidence itself could be a form of state-sponsored health inequity. Where there is ‘evidence’, it can be misrepresented in a biased manner. Indeed, the powerless position of queer people is both the cause and the result of the misinterpretation of health data – mainly by governments and mass media.

Local queer activists are ambivalent about the efforts towards making social injustices against SGMs a health issue, while they have suffered a lot from being over-medicalised subjects. This ambivalence is quite salient in Asian societies. At the 2015 ILGA-Asia Conference, an activist from the Philippines stated that: ‘The news about our poor lives attracts audiences for sensational stories’, as if ‘we are ill for being sexually active and self-indulgent’. And, according to a Nepalese activist: ‘The information can be quoted out of context’, when people only read that ‘international studies say we are less healthy’.

Conclusion: Health is political!

After all, do states really presume that there will be ‘enough-ness’ of evidence? Can health inequity research be capable of establishing the causation between any social determinant and one’s health outcome? If not, what do national delegates mean? Observing the debates in the WHO and elsewhere, what certain national governments have been doing is to avoid – by not making anything happen – a potential formulation of future international pressure through global health policymaking and its normative discourse.

Through deconstructing the discourse of a ‘lack of evidence’, we can thus identify the socio-political functions of ignorance and ignoring. That is, they did nothing, not because they didn’t understand and care. Quite on the contrary, it was because they cared and knew too well that health is always political, and yet, it is not just the politics concerning knowledge production and media representation; it is also international politics.


[1] In my research, I tend to use the term ‘SGM’ to encompass not only people who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) but also those whose sexual practices or gender expressions are considered bad/immoral/abnormal in varied historical and sociocultural contexts. So, SGM and LGBT should not be used interchangeably.

[2] For more information, see the meeting records of the 139th session of EB in 2016, pp. 3-5.

[3] These are my notes taken at the meetings of the sixth ILGA-Asia Regional Conference, held on 28-30 October 2015 in Taipei.