Earth Day 2020: It is time to change the way we grow our food

How our food is produced has global ramifications that are quite evident by now

By Amit Khurana
Published: Wednesday 22 April 2020

The ongoing novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic is not just a health crisis of unprecedented scale, but it also a crisis of food for many.

If disruptions in food production and supply within and across countries continue, the food crisis can mature and create more problems in times to come. This is, however, not the only way food is connected with COVID-19 or for that matter with epidemics, outbreaks or pandemics of the past and present.

Animals — whether in the wild or farm animals — are the most common aspect of this connection. They can — just like humans — be hosts to several infectious agents that can pass on directly to humans or through a carrier, before transmission among humans becomes out of control.

Bats, for example, are said to be hosts of the virus responsible for COVID-19, the Ebola disease outbreak of 2014-16 and the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) epidemic of 2002.

Camel is the known animal source of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) that emerged in 2012. The animal source was chickens in the case of the highly pathogenic avian influenza (H5N1) of 1997 and pigs in the case of the swine flu (novel influenza A, H1N1) pandemic that emerged in 2009.

What we eat affects our health at the individual level, but how our food is produced has global ramifications that are quite evident by now.

Take the case of intensive farming of food animals that provide a significant part of animal proteins the world wants to consume now.

Characterised by high stocking densities, animals such as chickens and pigs — selected for productivity and not disease resilience — are often cramped in confined spaces in largely unsanitary conditions. These conditions are no less than ideal breeding grounds for untreatable or difficult-to-treat infectious agents that can travel across the world in a short span of time.

Experts in the past highlighted that intensive poultry farming systems had a significant role in conversion of low pathogenic to highly pathogenic avian influenza viruses such as H5 and H7 sub-types that are of global human health concern.

Studies demonstrated how the emergence of avian influenza H5N1 and H7N9 in China was linked to rapid intensification of the poultry sector taking place in landscapes that provided extensive interface with the wild reservoir of avian influenza viruses.

The problem of these factory farms, however, is not limited to viral epidemics or pandemics that get huge attention for a couple of years and then go into history as a bad dream without causing fundamental shift in the way we produce our food.

It also extends to a bacterial disease pandemic of the chronic nature, that is, antimicrobial resistance: A phenomenon which makes it difficult to treat even a common infection of the gut, respiratory or urinary tract and is known to cause 700,000 deaths in a year globally and is estimated to lead to 10 million deaths by 2050, if we continue to ignore the scale of this cumulative loss of human lives.

This occurs because antibiotic use makes bacteria resistant and overuse accelerates it. Indiscriminate antibiotic use, however, is integral to intensive farming practices for two reasons.

One reason is antibiotics are routinely used as a cheap substitute for hygiene and bio-security to avoid diseases in the entire flock and thus avoid productivity losses.

The other reason is to make chickens grow fast through antibiotic-laden feed, easily available in our country.

In both these cases, antibiotics — considered critically important for humans — jeopardise treatment outcomes in them.

No wonder, the global livestock sector irresponsibly uses a major part of antibiotics produced but for reasons other than treating them. This is in addition to the often-dangerous food-borne bacterial illnesses caused by Salmonella, Campylobacter and E Coli through these farms.

But despite all this, intensive farming continues to grow, perhaps more steeply after the swine flu pandemic, which is estimated to have caused up to 575,000 deaths in the first year of the pandemic.

The ongoing COVID-19 crisis again compels us to make a choice. This time, we must carefully re-think our relationship with food, be it from animal or non-animal sources.

This relationship must also consider how the food we eat is produced and what its impact is on the producer and the environment, apart from the consumer.

The question is: Are we ready to pay such a high price or keen to ask questions that help us move towards sustainable ways of producing food?

Is local, diverse, nutritionally superior food from a resilient system not the real answer to our problems of malnutrition and ecological degradation?

Besides, would we not want governments to make companies warn us about excess salt, sugar or fat their packaged food products have? These junk foods, which also have chemicals not used in our kitchens, are known to fuel another epidemic of obesity and non-communicable diseases such as diabetes, hypertension and heart disease.

This is also something that has a chronic nature and large cumulative burden, and which also fails to get required attention.

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