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Big Farms Make Big Flu: Dispatches on Infectious Disease, Agribusiness, and the Nature of Science

copyright 2016, 456 pages, paperback, $38.76
review by Jack Kittredge

When I saw this book I knew I had to read it. Although published in 2016, long before the Corona Virus jumped species and created such havoc in our world, I suspected that the tale it tells of the evolution of viruses like our current nemesis is an all too common one.

Rob Wallace is a serious journalist. An evolutionary biologist and public health phylogeographer (one who studies the historical processes responsible for the contemporary geographic distributions of individuals), he is presently at the Institute for Global Studies at the University of Minnesota. Wallace has consulted for the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and is co-author of Neoliberal Ebola: Modeling Disease Emergence from Finance to Forest and Farm, and of Clear-Cutting Disease Control: Capital-Led Deforestation, Public Health Austerity, and Vector-Borne Infection.

So why don’t I like this book more? Rather than a narrative about the evolution of virulent influenzas such as Covid-19 among factory farmed animals, it is a collection of reports from his website (blogs, really). As he puts it: “Some of the pieces were written with a public audience in mind. Some were mere notes dashed to myself.” Too many, I’m afraid, were in the latter category.

The book badly needs a consistent thread. Wallace clearly believes that the growth of concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) and the mismanagement of their filth, concentration, and poor ventilation have fueled the growth of deadly diseases, and those “zoonotic” diseases (those pertaining to animals but transferable to humans) are jumping species barriers to bring infection and pandemic to humans. But instead of simply narrating this development, the book uses a microscope to follow disease outbreaks in Chinese CAFOs and the efforts of local authorities to cover them up. But for me such behavior is not shocking, it is expected, and a microscope is the wrong lens — too much detail and not enough big picture. I would prefer a much wider angle.

That said, let me try to cover some of the points Wallace stresses:

1) Southern China is a historical hot spot for disease evolution because of the intense concentration of hog and poultry agriculture in CAFOs there. In the last 30 years in Guangdong and Hong Kong SARS, H1N1, and H5N1 were among the area’s contributions to epidemic history.
2) There is a relationship between disease virulence and transmission. A disease must be virulent enough to infect the number of hosts that guarantee its transmission, but if too virulent it will promptly kill the host before it has a chance to transmit the infection via coughing, sneezing, or physical contact.
3) As long as susceptible hosts exist, their supply will enable voracious strains to compete without cutting off their own transmission chains.

Pretty clearly it is the concentration in CAFOs that makes them so dangerous. It turns out that space is expensive and things like sunlight, fresh air, and distance from another creature’s excretions would make feedlot animals too costly for our global cheap food system. As Wallace prophetically puts it:

For the long term, we must end the livestock industry as we know it. Influenzas now emerge by way of a globalized network of corporate feedlot production and trade, wherever specific strains first evolve. With flocks and herds whisked from region to region – transforming special distance into just-in-time expediency – multiple strains of influenza are continually introduced into localities filled with populations of susceptible animals. Such domino exposure may serve as the fuel for the evolution of viral virulence. In overlapping each other along the links of agribusiness’s transnational supply chains, strains of influenza also increase the likelihood they can exchange genomic segments to produce a recombinant of pandemic potential. In addition to the petroleum wasted and the loss of local food sovereignty, there are epidemiological costs to the geometric increase in food miles. We might instead consider devolving much of the production to regulated networks of locally owned farms.

As a small scale family hog and poultry producer, the obviousness of this thought has long been clear to me. But it is nice to have it stated so succinctly!

Anyone who is not familiar with the horrors of industrial animal production will have his or her eyes brusquely opened by Big Farms Make Big Flu. If you have lost anyone to the Corona virus you may be angered as well. The task is to put that knowledge and that anger to use effecting change. Small, local farms can raise animals in healthy conditions — on pasture, with adequate space to perform their natural behaviors, on high quality feed and humanely treated their entire lives. We simply must want it enough to demand it.