COVID-19 and planetary change: The food system is sick

Aerial view of area deforested for agricultural activities in Mato Grosso do Sul state, Brazil
Area deforested for agricultural activities in Mato Grosso do Sul state, Brazil (c) pabst_ell

Professor Paolo Vineis, Chair of Environmental Epidemiology at Imperial’s School of Public Health, blogs on why the food system must be reformed to prevent future pandemics.

As the world grapples with the COVID-19 health crisis, there is much discussion about how to ‘build back better‘ and create a sustainable, resilient future. One sector that needs reform is agriculture and the world’s unsustainable food system.

Deforestation, fast food and chronic disease

Agricultural practices like intensive farming and extensive animal breeding have led to widespread deforestation and a lack of control over how land is being used or misused (like we are seeing in Brazil). As a result, around 26% of global greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) now come from the agriculture sector. In the Global North, this system has also encouraged poor diets, such as eating lots of processed food and excessive amounts of meat. These types of diets are associated with chronic diseases, like diabetes and cardiovascular diseases, which, in turn, make people more vulnerable to the worst impacts of COVID-19.

A fertile breeding ground

Animal farming has created conditions that make it easy for RNA viruses like COVID-19 to spread. In large populations of pigs and birds, these viruses can rapidly replicate and mutate. A report estimates that agriculture is associated with over 25% of emerging infectious diseases, and over 50% of emerging zoonotic infectious diseases (diseases passed from animals to humans). Similarly, a recent Imperial study found that, in South East Asia, people living on agricultural land were on average almost twice as likely to be infected with a pathogen compared to those living elsewhere. There were also consistent associations between forest monoculture agriculture, where only one crop like palm oil or rubber is grown, and a number of diseases, such as hookworm and T. trichuria.

Encroaching on the wilderness

Industrialised food processing, or ‘ultra-processing’, has grown rapidly in the last decades. Recent studies indicate that 55% and 60% of total calories consumed in the UK and USA respectively are from ultra-processed foods (UPFs). One of the major impacts of the production of UPFs is decreased biodiversity. This is primarily caused by the intensification of agricultural processes (trying to get more and more output of crops per unit of land), and clearing uncultivated land for farming. This can lead to the destruction of natural ecosystems, with massive effects on the local wildlife and biodiversity. As agriculture increasingly encroaches upon the wilderness, humans come into closer contact with more wildlife and so there is a heightened risk of viral species being able to infect humans. These risks are further increased when people bring wild species into even closer proximity, in places such as live animal markets.

Feeding the world without destroying it

Converting wild to domesticated species, growing monocultures, using fertilisers and pesticides that cause chemical pollution, and destroying natural ecosystems, all threaten the world’s ability to sustain life. Many of the solutions to these unsustainable agricultural practices already exist. Companies like Growing Underground, for example, use hydroponic systems and LED technology to grow crops in a pesticide-free environment 33 metres below the streets of Clapham. Similarly, startups like Bio-F Solutions and Phytoform Labs are pioneering innovative ways to promote soil health and boost crop resilience to climate change and disease. And of course we all have our own role to play, by reducing food waste and moving to a more plant-based diet.

For more on the food system and COVID-19, read the latest blog from Dr David Nabarro: Food security during COVID-19: “We must respect farmers as we do health workers”

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