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Covid19: a cautionary tale of the dangers of unsustainable food production and consumption
By: Joanna Smallwood
Last updated: Wednesday, 10 November 2021
Unless significant changes are made in production and consumption patterns, we should anticipate further pandemics and other catastrophes resulting from malfunctioning ecosystems. SARS-CoV-2 (which causes the infectious disease COVID-19) is not the first, and most likely will not be the last such virus with the potential to form a pandemic. It is also by no means the worst that can be expected; the virus H7N9 kills a third of those infected.
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. The pressures on land use, habitat destruction, as well as illegal trade in wildlife and climate change all lead to the increased spread of zoonotic viruses, such as SARS-CoV-2, which can jump from the species they evolved with (wild animals), onto new hosts. 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.
Global Production Patterns
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. 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. In recent times, the epicenter of the current pandemic, 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 that 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 (eg. bat to pangolin) and then from non-human to human species.
This is a global concern not solely a ‘Chinese’ problem (as it has been referred to in populist discourse). 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. This hegemonic global concern has been recognized 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). Worryingly, the recent IPBES global assessment shows that little or no progress has been made towards achieving sustainable consumption and production. 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. We really are playing with fire, as evident in the context of zoonotic viruses. As Rob Wallace states, ‘chicken isn’t cheap if it kills millions’.
Global Consumption Patterns
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. 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.
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. 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. Our diets and consumption of food needs to be re-thought.
The anthropocentric morality and sustainability of current political and societal patterns around food production and consumption are also highly problematic. 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, stresses the need for animals to not only be protected from cruelty, but also from structures such as industrialized animal agriculture, that cause them harm. He also 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.
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 incorporation of animal rights is a basic prerequisite to sustainable development and the bare minimum that is needed.
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 industrialized 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.
Read the longer version of this on the School of Law, Politics and Sociology blog, LaPSe of Reason.
Dr Joanna Smallwood, ESRC/SENSS Post-Doctoral Fellow at the School of Law, Politics and Sociology at the University of Sussex, and Non-Practicing Solicitor.
Dr Izabela Delabre, Post-Doctoral Research Fellow at the University of Sussex Business School. Izabela's research examines the intersection of forest conservation, supply chains, and sustainable livelihoods.
Find out more about the Sussex Sustainability Research Programme (SSRP) project Izabela worked on: 'Sustainable supply chain development in forest communities'.
This blog is part of the
SSRP Forum: the Pandemic and Sustainability
This forum aims to contribute to the analysis of the impact of the pandemic on sustainability and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and to offer policy recommendations on how to respond to this unprecedented challenge.
The spread of coronavirus (COVID-19) presents us with an unprecedented challenge. We see losses of human life around the world, while one can hardly think what will happen if and when the pandemic reaches poorer countries with weaker economic and health structures. We see countries shutting down their economies to avoid the spread of the virus, as well as employing unprecedented measures of social distancing and population lockdown. We see whole economic sectors and households entering the intensive care of public financial support. In less than a month, the pandemic has redefined the priorities, parameters and boundaries of ‘what is possible’ in much of the world that we constructed since the Second World War.
The most urgent question is how to deal with the humanitarian crisis currently evolving and prevent it from getting out of control at a global scale. But a question we must also face is how the currently unprecedented mobilisation of public resources will be used to support our transition to a sustainable future, rather than a return to a socio-environmentally unsustainable past. One can hardly overstate the urgency of both these tasks. We in the Sussex Sustainability Research Programme (SSRP) community aim to contribute to this ‘mobilisation’ effort by setting up this Forum which aims to bring together experience, knowledge, ideas and recommendations to inform public responses to the pandemic and the implementation of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) at both local and global levels.