Saturday, January 21, 2017

Literature Notice: Agribusiness & Socio-Ecological Epidemiology (or ‘agroecology, epidemiology, and health justice’)

The first members of a team of Cuban doctors and health workers unload boxes of medicines and medical material at the Freetown airport. Sierra Leone: October 2, 2014 (Photograph by Florian Plaucheur/AFP/Getty). 

At the moment I cannot post anything substantive on this material, but I thought some readers of this blog might be interested in a few items (see too the suggested reading below) I recently came across, prompted in the first place by an intriguing (if not provocative) article in the recent New Left Review, 102 (Nov/Dec 2016): “Ebola’s Ecologies: Agro-Economics and Epidemiology in West Africa,” by Rob Wallace and Rodrick Wallace. Unfortunately, the piece is available only to subscribers (or by purchase), but I highly recommend it in any case. The following three paragraphssans notesare from the introduction to the article: 

“Disease epidemics are as much markers of modern civilization as they are threats to it. What successfully evolves and spreads depends on the matrix of barriers and opportunities that a given society presents to its circulating pathogens. For most of its history, for example, Vibrio cholerae lived off plankton in the Ganges delta. It was only after significant layers of the population had switched to an urban, sedentary lifestyle, and later had become increasingly integrated by nineteenth-century trade and transport systems, that the cholera bacterium evolved an explosive, human-specific ecotype. Simian immunodeficiency viruses emerged out of their non-human Catarrhini reservoirs in the form of HIV when colonial expropriation turned subsistence bushmeat and the urban sex trade into commodities on an industrial scale. Domesticated livestock has supplied a source for human diphtheria, influenza, measles, mumps, plague, pertussis, rotavirus A, tuberculosis, sleeping sickness and visceral leishmaniasis. Ecological changes wrought upon landscapes by human intervention have facilitated spillovers of malaria from birds, and of dengue and yellow fever from wild primates. The new pathogens adapted to improvements in medical technologies and public health, while innovations in agricultural and industrial methods accelerated demographic shifts and new settlement, concentrating potential host populations and thereby promoting new rounds of spillover. 

Policies aimed at re-engineering local economics for the benefit of multinationals have had a drastic impact on landscapes and ecosystems, and thus upon the fortunes of infectious disease. As epidemiological history attests, context is more than just a stage upon which pathogens and immunity clash. The regional agro-economic impacts of global neoliberalism can be felt across the levels of biocultural organization, down as far as the virion and molecule. The explorations of such connections may well be a cutting-edge question for the twenty-first century. A growing public health- and animal-health literature suggests that current patterns of agro-economic exploitation raise the risk of a new pandemic, whether triggered by an RNA virus like Ebola or SARS, or by some other pathogen. Ecosystems in which ‘wild’ viruses are controlled by the rough-and-tumble on environmental stochasticity are being drastically streamlined by deforestation and plantation monoculture. Pathogen spillovers that once died out relatively quickly are now discovering chains of vulnerability, creating outbreaks of greater extent, duration, and momentum. There is a possibility that some of these outbreaks may come to match the scale of 1918’s influenza pandemic, with a global reach and high rates of incapacitation and mortality.

Capitalist agri-business is increasingly transforming Planet Earth into Planet Farm. Forty per cent of the world’s land surface is now dedicated to agriculture, with many millions more hectares set to be brought into production by 2050. Livestock, representing 72 per cent of global animal biomass, is simultaneously highly concentrated and widely dispersed across the planet’s surface. The livestock sector uses a third of available freshwater and a third of cropland for feed. By its global expansion, com­modity agriculture acts as a nexus through which pathogens of diverse origins migrate from even the most isolated reservoirs in the wild to the most globalized of population centres. The longer the associated sup­ply chains and the greater the extent of deforestation, the more diverse (and exotic) the zoonotic pathogens that enter the food chain. Among such emergent pathogens are industrial Campylobacter, Nipah virus, Q fever, hepatitis E, Salmonella enteritidis, foot-and-mouth disease and a variety of novel influenza variants. Intensive agriculture’s diseconomies of scale extend beyond the unintended epidemiological consequences of globalizing transport and distribution. Its production cycles degrade the resilience of ecosystems to disease, and accelerate pathogen spread and evolution by giving rise to genetic monocultures, high population densities and expanding exports. In this essay, we describe the emergence of an urbanized Ebola in West Africa in late 2013 as a quintessential example of such a transition.”

Suggested Reading:
  • Andrée, Peter, et al., eds. Gobalization and Food Sovereignty: Global and Local Change in the New Politics of Food. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2014.
  • Aoki, Keith. Seed Wars: Controversies and Cases on Plant Genetic Resources and Intellectual Property. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008.
  • Bernstein, Henry, et al., eds. The Food Question: Profits Versus People. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1990.
  • Brookfield, Harold. Exploring Agrodiversity: Issues, Cases, and Methods in Biodiversity Conservation. New York: Columbia University Press, 2014.
  • Chapman, Audrey R. Global Health, Human Rights and the Challenge of Neoliberal Policies. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2016.
  • Farmer, Paul, et al., eds. Reimagining Global Health: An Introduction. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2013.
  • Frumkin, Howard, ed. Environmental Health: From Global to Local. San Francisco, CA: John Wiley & Sons, 2016.
  • Goldschmidt, Walter. As You Sow: Three Studies in the Social Consequences of Agribusiness. Montclair, NJ: Allanheld, Osmun and Co., 1978 ed. (originally published by The Free Press, 1947).
  • Gliessman, Stephen R. Agroecology: The Ecology of Sustainable Food Systems. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press, 3rd ed., 2015.
  • Gostin, Lawrence O. Global Health Law. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014.
  • Kloppenburg, Jack Ralph, Jr. First the Seed: The Political Economy of Plant Biotechnology, 1492-2000. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 2nd ed., 2004.
  • Magdoff, Fred and Brian Tokar, eds. Agriculture and Food in Crisis: Conflict, Resistance, and Renewal. New York: Monthly Review Press, 2010.
  • Mgbeoji, Ikechi. Global Biopiracy: Patents, Plants, and Indigenous Knowledge. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2006.
  • Patel, Raj. Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System. Brooklyn, NY: Melville House Publishing, 2007.
  • Perkins, John H. Geopolitics and the Green Revolution: Wheat, Genes, and the Cold War. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.
  • Venkatapuram, Sridhar. Health Justice: An Argument from the Capabilities Approach. Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2011.
  • Wallace, Rob. Big Farms Make Big Flu: Dispatches on Influenza, Agribusiness, and the Nature of Science. New York: Monthly Review Press, 2016.
  • Wallace, Robert G. and Rodrick Wallace, eds. Neoliberal Ebola: Modeling Disease Emergence from Finance to Forest and Farm. Cham, Switzerland: Springer International, 2016.
  • Warren, D. Michael, L. Jan Slikkerveer, and David Brokensha, eds. The Cultural Dimension of Development: Indigenous knowledge systems. London, UK: Intermediate Technology Publications, 1995.

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