Most of our global problems: energy and water shortages, environmental degradation, climate change, economic inequality, food insecurity and others, cannot be addressed separately, as these are interconnected and interdependent. When one of the problems worsens, the effects extend throughout the system, exacerbating the other problems. As never before, the coronavirus pandemic reveals to us the systemic nature of our world: human, animal and ecological health are closely linked. Undoubtedly, covid-19 is a call for humanity to rethink our way of capitalist and highly consumerist development, and the ways in which we relate to nature.
This time demand a comprehensive response to the current crisis, where the root causes behind the already apparent fragility and socio-ecological vulnerability of our world are addressed. Agroecology represents an inspiring example of a powerful systemic approach and, in this moment of the coronavirus pandemic, agroecology can help to explore the links between agriculture and health, demonstrating that the way agriculture is practiced can, on the one hand, promote health or, on the contrary, if it is poorly practiced, as in industrial agriculture, it can cause great health risks.
The ecological consequences of industrial agriculture on human health
For decades, many agroecologists have denounced the impacts of industrial agriculture on human health and ecosystems. Large-scale monocultures occupy around 80% of the 1.5 billion hectares dedicated to agriculture worldwide. Due to their low ecological diversity and genetic homogeneity, they are very vulnerable to weed infestations, insect invasions and disease epidemics, and recently to climate change.
To control pests, they apply around 2.3 billion kg of pesticides each year, less than 1% of which reaches pests effectively. Most end in soil, air, and water systems, causing environmental and public health damage, estimated at more than $ 10 billion a year, in the United States of America (USA) alone. These figures don’t include poisoning people by pesticides. Which worldwide affects approximately 26 million people manually. These calculations also don’t consider the costs associated with the acute and chronic toxic effects that cause pesticides through residues in food.
Many insecticides cause the decline of species such as pollinators, natural enemies of pests, as well as butterflies and beetles, birds and soil biota in agricultural landscapes, all of which contribute to ecological services for agriculture. This loss of biodiversity costs hundreds of billions of dollars annually in crop production and human health, and reinforces the spiral of pesticides by amplifying their effects on humans and ecosystems. The appearance of some 586 species of insects and mites resistant to more than 325 insecticides, indicates that modern agriculture has been left without tools, not only to face crop pests, but also human diseases such as dengue, malaria and others.
Much has been written about how the creation of industrial cattle in a confined manner "feedlots" is particularly vulnerable to devastation by different viruses such as avian flu and influenza. The large properties that have tens of thousands of birds or thousands of pigs, in the name of an efficient production of proteins, create an opportunity for viruses such as influenza to mutate and spread. More than 50 million chickens and turkeys in the United States have died from bird flu. Practices in these industrial operations (confinement, respiratory exposure to high concentrations of ammonia, hydrogen sulfide, etc. emanating from waste) not only make animals more susceptible to viral infections, but can provide the conditions under which pathogens can evolve most contagious and infectious types of viruses. These constantly changing viruses give way to the next human pandemic, as it happened in April 2009, with a new type of flu (Influenza) known as H1N1. The virus became known as the swine flu and spread rapidly around the world to reach a pandemic state.
Another factor that contributes to the emergence of pandemics is the massive and indiscriminate use of antibiotic products and growth promoters in models of industrial livestock. Enrique Murgueitio, from CIPAV (Fundación Centro para la Investigación en Sistemas Sostenibles de Producción Agropecuaria), says that “in addition to being polluting and expensive, its worst effect on human health is the creation of conditions to resist pathogenic strains to medicines. Like other viruses, waiting for the next pandemic, superbugs such as Pseudomonas aeruginosa, Escherichia coli, Staphylococcus aureus and Salmonella are aligned, with which there is no way to deal.”
Of course, there are other cattle production systems, such as silvopastoral systems, which based on agroecological principles ensure healthy animal production, restore landscapes and are less conducive to the promotion of epidemics. Antibiotics are not used in these systems (except in emergencies), as they live outdoors in biodiverse agroecosystems and their diet is based on natural foods from healthy soils, strengthening the immune system of these animals.
The situation worsens as the biodiverse agricultural landscapes, in which crops are surrounded by areas of natural vegetation, are being replaced by large areas of monocultures that cause deforestation and the appearance of diseases. As evolutionary biologist Rob Wallace noted: “Many of these new pathogens previously controlled by long-standing forest ecologies are being released, threatening the entire world. Capital-led agriculture that replaces natural habitats offers optimal conditions for pathogens to develop more contagious and infectious phenotypes ”. In other words, pathogens previously involved in natural environments are extending communities of animal and human breeding due to the disruption caused by modern agriculture and its pesticides and biotechnological innovations. A mere 4% increase in deforestation in the Amazon Forest increased the incidence of malaria by almost 50%. The coronavirus pandemic reminds us that by violating the basic laws of ecology in the name of profit, more infectious diseases emerging in people will come from domestic animals raised in nature and in industry.
Decrease in crop biodiversity and human health
Another public health consequence of the intensification of agriculture has been the decrease in crop diversity in agricultural landscapes. Although humans can eat more than 2,500 species of plants, most people's diets are made up of three main crops, such as wheat, rice and corn, which provide more than 50% of the calories consumed worldwide. However, more than 850 million people don’t have access to enough calories to eat. On the other hand, more than 2 billion people (mainly children) who consume mainly calories, suffer from hidden hunger, as their intake and absorption of vitamins and minerals are too low to maintain good health and development.
The fact that fewer crop species are feeding the world raises concerns about human nutrition, as well as the resilience of the global food system, as crop diversity is essential for climate adaptation. The loss of crop diversity and the concomitant homogenization of agroecosystems can have important consequences for the provision of ecological services and the sustainability of the food system. The price of failure of any of these crops can be very significant for food security, further affecting the precarious nutritional and health status of the poorest and most vulnerable people.
As indicated by Michael Pollan, “the entire food supply in the United States has gone through a process of “cornification” (a diet based on corn derivatives) and most of the corn consumed is invisible since it has been processed or passed through the animal feed before it reaches consumers. Most chickens, pigs and livestock today subsist on a corn diet. Most soft drinks and snacks consumed in the US contain high-fructose corn syrup (corn syrup), associated with the obesity and type 2 diabetes epidemic”.
In developing countries, agricultural modernization has led to a loss of food security linked to the disruption of traditional rural communities and their diversified food production systems. Mainly powered by a globalized corporate food system and free trade agreements. Many countries are moving from diverse, rich traditional diets to highly processed foods and beverages, high in energy density and low in micronutrients. As a consequence, obesity and chronic diseases related to these diets have proliferated.
Agroecology and a new food system
Today, when governments impose travel and trade restrictions and block entire cities to prevent the spread of covid-19, the fragility of the globalized food system becomes very evident. More trade and travel restrictions can limit the flow of imported food from other countries or other regions of a particular country, with devastating consequences on access to food, mainly in the poorest sectors. This is critical for countries that import more than 50% of the food consumed by their populations. Access to food is also critical for cities with more than 5 million people who, to feed their citizens, need to import no less than 2,000 tons of food per day, covering an average of 1,000 kilometers. Clearly, this is a highly unsustainable food system, easily disturbed by external shocks, such as natural disasters or a pandemic.
In the face of such global trends, agroecology has gained a lot of attention in the past three decades as a basis for the transition to agriculture, which would not only provide rural families with significant social, economic and environmental benefits, but would also feed the urban masses in an equitable and sustainable. There is an urgent need to promote new local food systems to guarantee the production of abundant, healthy and affordable food for a growing urbanized human population. This challenge will be difficult, considering the predicted scenarios of a declining arable land base; with expensive oil and volatile prices; increasingly limited supplies of water and nitrogen; and, at a time of extreme climate change, social tensions and economic uncertainty.
There is no doubt that the best agricultural system capable of facing future challenges is one that is based on agroecological principles that exhibit high levels of diversity and resilience, offering reasonable yields and ecosystem services. Agroecology proposes to restore the landscapes that surround rural properties, which enriches the ecological matrix and its services, such as natural pest control, soil and water conservation, etc., but also creates "ecological firebreaks" that can help to prevent pathogens from escaping their habitats.
Much work has been done to restore the production capacities of small farmers, promoting agro-ecological principles and practices that increase traditional agricultural production, but also improving agrobiodiversity and its positive effects associated with food security and environmental integrity. This work is key to the food sovereignty of many communities, as small farmers who control only 30% of the world's arable land produce between 50 and 70% of the food consumed in most countries.
Urban agriculture has been strengthened as an important sustainable alternative to improve food security on an urbanized planet. The production of fresh fruits, vegetables and some animal products in cities can be improved using agroecology, thus contributing to the provision of food and nutrition to families at the local level, especially in marginalized communities. Urban food production has doubled globally in just over 15 years, and this trend of expansion will continue as people realize that in times of crisis, access to locally produced food is strategic. Eating nutritious plant-based foods produced on local agroecological properties can help strengthen our immune system, possibly improving our ability to resist various threats, including contagious viruses such as covid-19.
Agroecology has the potential to locally produce much of the food needed by rural and urban communities, particularly in a world threatened by climate change and other disorders, such as disease pandemics. What is needed is support for the expansion of agroecology, in order to optimize, restore and improve the productive capacities of small local and urban farmers. To take advantage of this potential, successful local agroecological initiatives must be widely disseminated through pedagogical strategies from farmer to farmer, the creation of agroecological references, the reactivation of traditional systems and the reconfiguration of entire territories under agroecological management.
To improve the economic viability of such efforts, it’s also necessary to develop equitable local and regional market opportunities, governed by the principles of solidarity economy. At this point, the role of consumers is essential, if they understand that eating is a political and ecological act, so that when they support local farmers, and not the corporate food chain, they create sustainability and socio-ecological resilience.
The transition from agriculture through government policies will take time, but each of us can accelerate the process by making daily choices to help small farmers, the planet and ultimately our own health. The transition to agroecology for more socially just agriculture, economically viable, environmentally sound and healthy will be the result of the confluence between rural and urban social movements, which in a coordinated way work for the radical transformation of the globalized food system that is collapsing. Today, it’s sensible to reflect on the fact that ecosystems support economies (and health); economies do not sustain ecosystems. Covid-19 reminds us that disrespectful treatment of nature, including the biodiversity of plants and animals, has consequences and, when ultimately harmed, so are human beings. We hope that the current covid-19 crisis will help to enlighten humanity to lay the foundations for a new world and smoother ways of interacting with nature.
Brasil de Fato
Translation: Romier Sousa
Clara Inés Nicholls e Miguel A. Altieri