“My dream in 1987 was that I will not let the Monsantos have a monopoly over the seed. They cannot pretend they invented the seed, they cannot pretend it’s a machine that they put in place. This illusion is too much of an abuse against the creativity and creation of the earth. I decided to protect the seed because I didn’t accept it being in the hands of a few people just for profit and monopoly. I could not accept the untruth of the seed being patented. For me saving seeds and exchanging seeds is maintaining the continuity of cycles of life in farming, in nature, and in society,” says environmental activist, author, and food sovereignty advocate Dr. Vandana Shiva, explaining her life’s work.
Dr. Shiva continues: “Monsanto and Bayer have a long history. They made explosives and lethally poisonous gases using shared technologies and sold them to both sides in the two world wars…Industrial agriculture is nothing else but a subsidy to the continuation of the war that started in Hitler’s concentration camps. And in the process, we have destroyed the land, destroyed biodiversity, destroyed insects, butterflies, pollinators, and we have destroyed the farmers.” She comments that it’s not going to work to have “the whole world declare a war on a little virus because humans have lost every war against microbes. They turn out to be so much smarter…The garden is going to be our savior in the time of artificial intelligence.”
A virus that has locked down the world and robbed the livelihoods of millions for over a year now has a message for humanity, if only we could pay attention to it – we are just the tip of biology on this earth. The pandemic is not a natural disaster, but a human-caused disaster. If we do not respect the rights of other species or our fellow human beings, our planet will continue to evolve, even without us.
“It was a bad day for viruses,” Moderna’s chair Noubar Afeyan says about the day when he got the first word of his company’s clinical trial results. “We may never have a pandemic again.”
As tempting as it is to believe, I find it more realistic to go with the thesis of Dr. Michael Greger’s book, How to Survive a Pandemic. “When I was growing up, there was no such thing as HIV/AIDS. Where did this virus come from?” he asks in the preface of this book. The current coronavirus pandemic may just be a dress rehearsal for the coming plague. We are heading toward a much deadlier pandemic–a hundred times worse than COVID-19–which would threaten our civilization, he argues.
As he delves into tracing the roots of many pandemics to industrialized animal agriculture, he also mourns the loss of more than half of the Earth’s tropical forests that have been cleared due to the expanding livestock production. This “hamburgerization” of the rainforests has set the stage for disease emergence and transmission in many ways. As the rainforests of Africa were destroyed for logging operations, gorillas and chimpanzees were shot and sold as food. Tracing the roots of HIV to bushmeat, he writes: “Someone butchered a chimp a few decades ago and now thirty million people are dead.” Human outbreaks of Ebola have been traced to exposure to the dead bodies of infected great apes hunted for food.
“Increasing consumer demand for animal products worldwide over the past few decades has led to a global explosion in massive animal agriculture operations which have come to play a key role in the Third Age of emerging human disease,” says Dr. Greger. His details on factory farming practices are eye-opening for meat consumers: “The stress associated with the routine mutilations farm animals are subjected to without anesthesia–including castration, branding, dehorning, detoeing, teeth clipping, beak trimming, and tail docking–coupled with the metabolic demands of intensive production, such as artificially augmented reproduction, lactation, early weaning, and accelerated growth rates, leave animals extremely prone to disease.”
Dr. Greger also lays out the environmental impact of factory farms throughout this book. He cites Robert F. Kennedy Jr. describing North Carolina’s hog farms: “Below, aluminum culverts collect and channel their putrefying waste into 10-acre, open-air pits three stories deep from which miasmal vapors choke surrounding communities and tens of millions of gallons of hog feces ooze into North Carolina’s rivers.” What about Salmonella and E. coli outbreaks in alfalfa sprouts and greens? The bacteria from chicken and cattle manure get onto sprouts as the level of infection in animal feces has risen with the intensification of factory farming.
“There is shit in the meat,” says Eric Schlosser, in his book Fast Food Nation. Writing about the processing of chickens at factory farms in her book Spoiled, author Nicols Fox says that the “final product is no different than if you stuck it in the toilet and ate it.” As he narrates the filthy conditions at factory farms, Dr. Greger argues that it is easier to blame practices that may be culturally foreign, such as wet markets and bushmeat, than it is to look at our own plates in the mirror. The first hybrid swine flu virus was discovered in North America. “With massive concentrations of farm animals within whom to mutate, these new swine flu viruses in North America seem to be on an evolutionary fast track, jumping and reassorting between species at an unprecedented rate.”
In a gut-wrenching account of the abuse of animals, Dr. Greger writes: “A hen needs 291 square inches of space to flap her wings, 197 square inches to turn around, and 72 square inches just to stand freely. U.S. commercial battery facilities typically allow each bird an average of 64 square inches. Laying hen warehouses can average more than a hundred thousand chickens per shed.” According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), a single gram of manure from an infected chicken can contain “enough virus to infect 1 million birds.”
These animals are bred to be sick. In the 1950s, the industry could raise a five-pound chicken in less than three months. This now takes an average of forty-five days. Broilers with a faster growth rate are under physiological and immunological stress that makes them more sensitive to infectious diseases. Dr. Greger says that H5N1 ought to have been the wake-up call to industry breeders that myopic breeding schemes prioritizing growth over health concerns threaten the continued viability of their industry. Unfortunately, “the message does not seem to have gotten through.”
COVID-19 is not the only pandemic we have had, Dr. Greger points out: “Bird flu viruses have been detected every year in the U.S. since the mid-1960s. In just the last five years, the United States has suffered more than two hundred outbreaks of highly pathogenic avian influenza viruses, including H5N1, H5N8, H7N8, and H7H9, resulting in the deaths of more than fifty million chickens and turkeys.” He explains that by adapting to chickens, bird flu viruses hit an evolutionary jackpot. And, by adapting to chickens, the viruses may be adapting to the human race–another multibillion-host bonanza for the viruses.
Dr. Greger also reports the meat industry’s efforts to cover up the information on disease outbreaks over the decades. The industry’s attempts at poultry vaccinations have led to viral mutations and vaccine-resistant strains. He quotes industry insiders who admit that truly informed consumers are the last thing they need: “If most urban meat-eaters were to visit an industrial broiler house, to see how the birds are raised, and could see the birds being “harvested” and then being “processed”….some, perhaps many of them, would swear off eating chicken and perhaps all meat.” His book presents many stories of outbreaks in factory farms from New Jersey to Oklahoma as well as of the cover-ups by corporate producers and veterinarians.
Considering the role of funding for the meat industry, Dr. Greger mentions that the World Bank, which has funded large-scale livestock projects in developing nations, has acknowledged that there is “a significant danger that the poor are being crowded out, the environment eroded, and global food safety and security are threatened” with large factory farms. While production profitability has been the sole consideration, critics have argued that human and animal health and welfare, soil health, biodiversity, climate change, social justice, equity, good governance, and environmental stewardship have been completely ignored.
In painstaking details throughout his book, Dr. Greger explains that reckless animal agriculture practices have given rise to endless diseases caused by humans. The root causes behind the Third Age of human disease are “anthropogenic,” meaning human-caused. “As climate changes and ecosystems are destroyed, pathogens will become ubiquitous, constantly mixing and mutating to find new animal hosts and new avenues of infection.” Referring to pandemic influenza, Nobel Prize winner scientist Joshua Lederberg said: “Some people think I am being hysterical, but there are catastrophes ahead. We live in evolutionary competition with microbes–bacteria and viruses. There is no guarantee that we will be the survivors.”
Is it possible to prevent future pandemics? “As hard as it is to imagine a virus more ominous than H5N1, intensive poultry production on a global scale is a relatively new phenomenon. As poultry consumption continues to soar in the developing world, there is no biological reason that bird flu could not evolve and mutate into an even deadlier niche…Even if H5N1 never developed the capacity to go pandemic, it may only be a matter of time before the new poultry factories of the world breed the deadliest of combinations,” claims Dr. Greger. He offers a moratorium on factory farms as one of the solutions: “If the development of animal agriculture marked the “start of the era of zoonosis,” then the scaling back of animal agricultural production may hasten its end.”
“We may be one bushmeat meal away from the next HIV, one pangolin plate away from the next killer coronavirus, and one factory farm away from the next deadly flu…Tragically, it may take a pandemic with a virus like H5N1 or H7N9 before the world realizes the true cost of cheap chicken,” Dr. Greger declares as he concludes his remarkable book.
In an interview with Senator Cory Booker–who has unveiled a bill to reform the farm system–food revolutionist and author John Robbins says that 80% of the antibiotics that are used in the U.S. for all purposes aren’t used as medicines to treat bacterial infections in human beings, which is the rightful use, but they are used as feed-additives in factory farms and in concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs). If this continues, we are heading into superbugs when no antibiotic will work on human infections. Senator Booker says that his bill is a “real leverage point to look at our food systems in America, and to take steps to correct this injustice” where 90% of our agriculture subsidies using taxpayer money is going into four monocrops. “A significant amount goes to feeding livestock…and the rest of it goes to things that make us sicker, like corn syrup. That’s why my kids in Newark can find a Twinkie product cheaper than an apple…We have a savagely broken food system; these powerful interests protect it, and this is not for the small, independent family farmer. This is for the big multinational corporations who get billions of dollars because of our subsidies.” As someone who believes that change can start with a single person, Senator Booker quotes an old saying that change doesn’t come from Washington, it comes to Washington. He calls on citizens to double down on their activism and find ways to demand a change by working with local legislators, house members, and senators on these issues.
As for Dr. Shiva, she took the inspiration from Gandhi’s spinning wheel–which was against the Satanic mills of England that had colonized the world and created slavery–and started saving seeds to fight American agrochemical company Monsanto’s tyrannical control of seeds, and has since worked tirelessly with small farmers. Her organization, Navdanya, has built 150 community seed banks in different parts of India. Navdanya means “nine seeds” (symbolizing protection of biological and cultural diversity) and also the “new gift” (for seed as commons, based on the right to save and share seeds.) “Whenever a farmer has a seed, they are not in debt. Because it is the seeds bred for chemicals or genetically engineered seeds that need chemicals that get farmers into debt, for seed, and for chemicals. That’s the primary reason for about 70% of the debt…First they said without chemicals you can’t grow food. Then they said without GMOs you can’t grow food. And now they are saying that without digital agriculture you can’t grow food…The Corona crisis is forcing humanity to shake the myth of certainty and predictability. The entire mechanistic industrial ideal which assumes total control, total prediction, and has got us in this mess, assumes separation that we are not part of nature and we are masters.” Dr. Shiva proclaims that uncertainty and non-separation from nature is the way the world is woven.
Paulomi Shah hopes to live in a world where not a single animal would be killed for food – so that there would be an abundance of healthy foods – and hopes for a world where all foods would be grown organically.