Can we survive the epidemics that Big Agriculture produces? An interview with biologist Rob Wallace


Rob Wallace is an evolutionary biologist and the author of “Big Farms Make Big Flu: Dispatches on Infectious Disease, Agribusiness, and the Nature of Science” (Monthly Review Press). Through a dialectical process he shows us how Big Agriculture and its organization and methodology conflict with the epidemiological controls needed to stop flu epidemics from emerging and killing millions of people. We sat down with Rob Wallace in late November 2016 at May Day Books in Minneapolis.

Bud Schulte: I’m curious about how you came to your Marxist approach to science.

Rob Wallace: My parents were radical scientists. My father is trained as a physicist, my mother as a marine biologist. They met on a picket protesting my father’s professors in the Physics Department [at Columbia University] who were working with the JASON group at the time. The JASON group were physicists helping the DOD come up with various weapons systems, including Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles.

My parents helped found “Scientists and Engineers Against the War.” That same year, “Science for the People” was founded in Boston. This is a time when there were so many radical scientists that those two groups were rivals. If only we were in that stage again! So I grew up cultivating a certain sensibility around the dinner table: that against bourgeois scientific practice, truth and justice are deeply intertwined.

When I first started grad school, I put these notions into practice. As a grad student at the City University of New York, I participated in a lot of student activism. So I had activism and I had science, and some of it spilled over and some of it didn’t. But it was working on influenza as a postdoc at the University of California that the pieces really came together. I began to think through what bourgeois science is and what it destroys, and later, the way I got squeezed out [of establishment science] for saying what was right in front of me.

It is a process. Once you come through your training, it seems like an obvious path, but really there are twists and turns along the way—misdirections, convergences, realizations. The most obvious realizations often take years to crystalize.

A message is sent when you are bounced out of establishment science for what you think is good work. For a long time it seems like even if you object to the premises of the typical science, at least you’re able to pay bills. But then when you are told that doing good work is not what is wanted, when you have always believed that science is about figuring out complicated problems in natural phenomena and you are told not to figure them out anymore, then there is a profound break between the system that helped produce you as a scientist and the desire to help that system any more.

You can see what the larger system does to people around you and the broader world. That happens to a lot of scientists: The accumulation of understanding of how [scientists] are used and abused—not to advance science but for a system that only cares about advancing its particular brand of science.

John Schraufnagel: Just today, I saw several headlines—Ebola is changing faster than they thought. And new flu outbreaks—I think today I read about one in Sweden. H5N8, I think, is all across Europe now. Is this something new?

RW: That’s the interesting question. Despite the fact that some of the influenzas are celebrities—H5N1 was at century’s turn and then H1N1, the swine flu [that emerged outside Mexico City in 2009]—these are only two of multiple new reassortants that evolved and spread over the past 30 years. And in ways that many scientists would agree have not been seen before. Multiple new strains that have emerged, and largely (in our hypothesis, speaking very broadly), it’s because the spread of globalized monoculture hog and poultry production.

BS: Explain how segmenting and reassortment work.

RW: Influenza has a segmented genome. It has eight segments. When you have two different influenza types that occupy the same host, they can trade the segments like a deck of cards. Most of the time, the influenza that comes out of that exchange is crap, but every so often you get a Royal Flush from it, and that new combination is much better in a particular host species, or in spreading to humans, than previous combinations.

The recombination accelerates evolution by virtue of the biology of the virus. And that has happened historically—throughout the history of influenza. At lot of the reassortment happens when all the different wild waterfowl species come together in the summer up in the Arctic Circle. That kind of trading has happened for eons. In influenza time, anyway, that’s in eons.

That is now also happening within industrial hog and poultry, and [scientists] have been able to track the shift and see this kind of reassortment going on. Typically, as in all organisms, you might have a mutation, a point mutation, within the genetic code at a single nucleotide position that changes the virus. And that still happens, but this reassortment, this trading of whole segments, is an accelerant through evolution that allows the virus to arrive upon entirely new adaptations in ways that point mutation alone wouldn’t allow them. Or, in any short order anyway.

And so, when biologists speak about H1N1s and H5N8s and all other combinations, those are different numbers for the types of hemagglutinin and the neuraminidase. Hemagglutinin is a kind of molecular key that allows the virus to key into the host cell. The neuraminidase, the N in, say, the H1N1, is a glycoprotein that allows the virus to key out of the cell once it has replicated in the host cell.

Those are two of the eight segments. The H’s and the N’s, yes, but then you have all these internal genes that are recombining as well. So swine flu H1N1, it’s not like the seasonal H1N1. It has the hemagglutinin 1 and the neuraminidase 1, but the internal segments are all different. So the influenzas trade these different “cards,” and they arrive upon these different combinations of influenza that allow the virus to react to, say, a new host or a new circumstance in a way that it didn’t before.

In the last 30 years, there’s been a clear acceleration in the evolution of the virus through this reassortment, and there’s a growing understanding among scientists that in all likelihood it’s being driven by the industrialization of poultry and hog, which are now traded from one side of the planet to the other, mixing previously isolated strains.

BS: I was an eviscerator at a hog plant. Does this account for the fact that workers would get recurrent flus (especially those that work inside the animals)? We thought maybe you’d be immune to it the next year, but no such luck—you get it again and again and again.

RW: Your question is very specific, but it has broad implications because it asks us, what is the nature of science? A lot of biologists would focus on how the virus evolved, and that work needs to be done, it is a necessary part of it, but viruses do not merely evolve in the abstract, they evolve in a specific concrete context. And that concrete context now is a particular neoliberal agriculture, and how animals are organized, how they are grown, how labor is treated, the directions subsidies run. All these things are fundamentally integrated and have a profound effect on the evolution of the virus.

So, ultimately, I try to point this context out throughout the book in order to explain the evolution of the virus. Virology and molecular biology, while necessary, are insufficient. You need the bigger picture of all these other factors in order to offer a cogent explanation for the evolution of the new pathogens.

Now to your question: There was a paper I cite in the book in which researchers describe the shifts in the hog industry through the 1990s and its effects on influenza. Before World War II, but especially afterward, you had a Livestock Revolution here in the United States in the poultry sector. You have all the consolidation across the companies and all the big companies—Tyson and others—began to take over production all the way from breeding to distribution. So you reduce the variety of birds, the number of farms declines, and the number of heads per farm increases.

The hog industry didn’t consolidate until the 1990s. That was late in the game. The hog sector followed in poultry’s footsteps, and that had a profound effect on everybody associated—not just companies, not just the hog, but the workers involved as well—and the farmers. And so it is an integrated epidemiology where what happens to the industry affects how the hogs are exposed to the viruses, which affects the workers who are handling them. And so, some of the work that I quote in the book describes how whatever perfect storm may be emerging for influenza–if it is going to make its way out into human populations—in all likelihood, it’s going to go through the farm workers who are handling the live hog.

JS: What’s behind the obsession with finding “patient zero” whenever there’s an outbreak? They are doing so now with Ebola, but I remember in the 1980s, there was a huge “hunt” for the patient zero of the AIDS epidemic.

RW: You can always look at a particular outbreak and try to identify a patient zero, but in many ways the search for patient zero distracts or detracts from looking at the broader picture, from examining the larger social forces—the context—of an outbreak. Explanations compete with each other. One explanation may be favored as a way of avoiding talking about the bigger picture. Something can be true and miss the big picture.

Yeah, Ebola is a virus. Yeah, it can be spread by burial practice. But you are completely ignoring the larger context that is pushing the emergence of multiple pathogens. In this case, our team’s conclusion is that the outbreak is an expression of neoliberalism in West Africa. West Africa has long been pillaged, but there is a particular shift that it’s undergoing that is connected to a particular type of globalization at this point in time.

Guinea, the epicenter of the West Africa outbreak, had not been long part of that integration, unlike Liberia, which had been on the front end of it since 1925 with the Firestone Rubber Company. Liberia has been pillaged to the point that almost 45% of its land has been leased out to foreign companies. Guinea was kind of trailing on that, but has recently begun to turn in that direction.

So if we look at palm oil, as the land gets eaten up in Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand, global palm oil looks for other places to grow its crop—the Amazon and the Congo. Even though there aren’t foreign companies in Guinea yet, the agricultural sector is changing now. There was pressure on the state to try to develop some response to the changes in the global market, so production went from a parastatal cooperative developing Guinean palm oil to a state company that began to do all the classic development from the second half of Marx’s “Capital,” Book I. The enclosures and all the stuff that he described for early capitalist agriculture in England—you can see it being played out in Guinea. And so, the state company starts to violate the commons, enclose it, consolidate, select for a particular type of industrial hybrid palm oil, and clear the land so you can start producing at scale.

Our hypothesis was that this had an effect on the ecology. If a bunch of host species in the forest die out, then their pathogens die with them. But some of those [host] species are going to prosper. You have some bat species, bird species, and monkeys that are quite adaptable and can prosper and do quite well in this new agroforestry. Some bat species, which are documented Ebola carriers, are attracted to the palm oil, and that increases the interface between humans and bats.

Another [scientific] group had a hypothesis that it was an insectivore bat—another Ebola reservoir—that was the cause of the particular outbreak that infected a particular boy. Again, the focus on patient zero. The insectivore hypothesis may be true, but does it miss the point?

We tracked that particular bat species as also attracted to cash crops. Maybe not palm oil as we had hypothesized, but macadamia and sugar cane. Focusing on the bat, while important, misses the bigger picture that it is the change in broader agroecology that has had an effect on changing the interface between these reservoirs of pathogens and humans. In fact, we went all the way back to show that every single Ebola outbreak was prefaced with capital-led shifts in land use, even to the first outbreak in 1976 in Southern Sudan.

Pathogens and their outbreaks are a mirror, a reflection of our mode of civilization. And the ones that win out are telling us something about ourselves. The biology of the pathogen matters because it is figuring out something about the nature of our social organization and what it does. Our effects are profound and far and wide.

Every one of those pathogens—HIV, Ebola, and so on—going all the way back to the beginning of civilization, are marginal at first, and then when we change something in the landscape or in our cultural practice, a new ecosystem niche opens up, and the pathogens take advantage of it—a nice convergence of biology and ecosystemic circumstance. Every new emergent pathogen, all the way back, can be explained that way.

BS: Doesn’t the hunt for patient zero also serve the media agenda? They play on fears but in a way that deflects attention from the actual culprits.

RW: We need to object to trying to scare people–using public health warnings as a weapon [of fear]. But there are those among us who would say that such warnings are sometimes also very much needed and often badly downplayed.

The real question is: What problem are we going to focus on? The notion that someone from West Africa is in a Texas hospital and infected a couple nurses—that sucks—but is it going to lead to an apocalyptic outbreak here in the U.S.? The answer is no. But there are some really big, horrible changes going on in West Africa, on the other hand. It’s not just about West Africa, because the Ebola outbreak arose out of relational geography.

If neoliberal deforestation and mining is driving the emergence of multiple pathogens, where’s the money that is funding that deforestation? This is why in the book I talk about how Hong Kong and New York and London should be considered “hot spots” of disease. That’s where the sources of capital that are driving the deforestation and development originate.

But it is not just the public health scene but the broader media and political consciousness that is organized around accepted premises that are required to continue a system that exploits people here in the States and abroad. I see it time and again in public health: brilliant, good hearted people, doing the right thing but repeatedly arriving at the wrong conclusion because they accept the premises of the system that drives the outbreaks and on which they rely.

JS: All the articles I was reading today [about the most recent avian influenza outbreak in Sweden] were blaming wild birds for all the problems. Do you have any comment on that?

RW: Yes, they are blaming wild birds. Various health commissioners and agricultural ministers would say that’s why we need to pack in all the poultry and keep them on the farms and protect them from being hit by wild waterfowl. But it’s the fact that you are packing them all in that’s causing their deaths, because you’re selecting for the virulence that doesn’t have the same impact in the wild. You have it there [in Europe] and you have it here in Minnesota.

When we had the massive H5N2 outbreak here, the veterinary medicine folk were hiring ecologists to try to figure out how the wild birds are infecting the poultry. Now they’ve latched on to the notion of “ecohealth” because they are searching for a means and mechanism to wash the hands of their patrons’ business model. So something beautiful and wonderful—the notion of tracking how wild animals and livestock and human health are integrated—now becomes a way to avoid the fact that agribusiness’s business model is the source of the virulence and the outbreaks.

JS: In your book you quote Cargill CEO Gregory Page as saying, “Cargill is engaged in the commercialization of photosynthesis. It is at the root of what we do.” That pretty much sums up the assumptions of this system. Everything is a commodity.

RW: Even that which we think would be a source of free energy is now something to be encapsulated within a paradigm of an economic system that is making money off of the commons. Page is alluding to the notion that he can somehow bottle the sun. And that’s what happens when Cargill grabs land and in essence takes it out from underneath the feet of subsistence and smallholder farmers. They’ve removed the right to use free energy for making food out of thin air—with seeds and some land, the sun does most of the work. And now, all of a sudden, small farmers aren’t able to do that.

BS: Evolutionary epidemiology is your field. Which means you probably have some ideas about how we actually could combat these viruses, if we were willing to do so. In your opinion, what should we be doing differently, and why aren’t we doing what we should be doing?

RW: If you look at the genetics of influenza or Ebola or HIV, they are evolutionary machines. They speed through point mutations with extraordinary speed to the point where—and I describe this in the book—their evolution violates our notion of cause and effect. HIV or influenza weekly come up with solutions to vaccines or drugs that we haven’t even invented yet.

This is why any effort going toe-to-toe with influenza, Ebola, or HIV is a losing battle. I’m not opposed to vaccines or drugs or medicine more generally, but the notion that you are going to go toe-to-toe with that kind of evolutionary machine is ridiculous. We don’t have the capacity to do that. So we have to address the broader sociological and ecological context and hopefully maneuver our way to arrive at a détente with many a pathogen. We could maneuver a lot of pathogens to a place where they couldn’t do as much damage.

Except, we’re going in the other direction! If I wanted to select for a strain of influenza that would do maximum damage and spread around the world, I would produce my hog and poultry exactly the way agribusiness does it. That arises out of the fact that Big Ag separated out ecology from economy. And that goes deep into the heart of the Victorian origins of capitalism and the capacity of the bourgeoisie to manipulate the world, which includes the premise that as a class they can separate themselves out from the world they seek to manipulate.

I get asked all the time if there is a right way to mass produce food, but the people who ask me don’t want the answer I give. Immediately, we could institute three practical changes that would maneuver dangerous disease out of poultry and livestock:

If agriculture is about piling in 15,000 birds together, that’s going to select for greater virulence. Well we can’t do that anymore, so somehow we have to space them out a little bit more across the food landscape.

And we can’t do genetic monoculture anymore; there have to be different varieties. And we have to allow them to reproduce on site, to allow the immune resistance to develop to any circulating pathogen. Agribusinesses don’t do that now. The birds and hogs can’t reproduce on site—all the breeding is done offshore and for morphometric characteristics, not for immune response. We want our birds that are infected and survive to be able to pass on their immunological adaptations to the next generation. That’s how nature works to our benefit.

So there! Three immediately practical things! But those are things that would in essence end the business model of livestock production—because the whole point of raising them as monoculture now is to make a shitload of money.

The system says it wants solutions in the concrete, but in this case these can’t be applied unless the broader shifts in our economic structure are imposed as well. And they must be. As the farmers will tell us, we’ve reached a boundary condition. We’ve come up to a point where the economics cannot survive the epidemiology it produces.