It’s a bewildering year and you may have wondered: Just how did we get to this place at this time in history?
There are many theories that are specific to the origin and spread of the coronavirus, but few look at global history and the role of food and population change within the context of disease.
The cultivation of wheat, hemp and barley varieties and others from the early wild grasses and brassicas was the beginning of farming, followed by the development and feeding of livestock. As populations increased and centralized, so did the density of food and food animals, and the pests or potential vectors that contaminated those spaces. With that change emerged the introduction and consequential spread of disease.
Today, according to the UN’s Food & Agriculture Organization, more than 70 per cent of emerging diseases are zoonotic in nature, meaning disease can transfer from human to animal or animal to human. Our relationship with centralized food production along more dense demographics mirrors our relationship with disease.
Even though the world has regionally seen the best nutrient availability in history, actually contributing to death by obesity, many of the world’s poor and crowded remain vulnerable. Research on disease transfer and the relationship to food and animals has found two constant factors: Density and transmission by travel.
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A quick look at history has many examples but here are a few. The bubonic plague killed 50 million people in the 1300s. Carried by rats and fleas, the Black Death was spread by travel, particularly on ships where crowded conditions ensured a rapid growing medium.
Although East Africa is the ancestral home of tuberculosis, which dates as far back as 9,000 years, it was the leading cause of death in Canada in 1867. Through genomics, scientists now believe that separate strains travelled via several hosts, predominantly the seal. But take a look at the list of hosts that transfer TB: Cattle, buffalo, sheep, goats, pigs, camels, horses, cervids, llamas, elephants, foxes, mink, rats, ferrets, tapirs, kudus and elands (two types of antelope), possums, rhinos, squirrels, raccoons, badgers, rabbits, mice and moles, tigers, leopards, lynx and coyotes.
TB is an active zoonotic disease that is manifested in crowded conditions and through travel. The World Health Organization estimates that one-third of the global population has latent TB and the disease is building resistance to treatment with 78 per cent of all new cases multi-drug resistant. In 2018, more than 10 million people contracted TB and 1.5 million died.
In the last decade, for the first time, we saw influenza carried by birds transfer to pigs. There are 144 varieties of ‘the flu’ that kill 350,000 to 650,000 people annually. Crowding, humidity and travel have been identified as the medium for transmission.
In fish, mammals and birds, there is always an underlying and contributing disease factor that may be latent until ignited by extensive transportation and crowding. And though the complexities of the issue are far reaching, there are small actions that can be taken by agriculture to be a part of the control or reduction of disease and disease transmission.
Despite all the technical information and research indicating higher incidence of disease when mixing and increasing density in food animals, fish, rodent or fowl, many food producers are caught in the net of massive production to meet consumer and export demand.
We need to rethink this as an industry.
Let’s take a chapter from the human health playbook. When human health officials speak about flattening the curve in the current pandemic, the recommendations are to stay apart, stay out of crowds and to not travel. The return to full seats by the airlines contradicts scientific evidence and shows the depth of the misunderstanding of disease transmission.
Yet there is a load of scientific evidence in animal and human research to support those recommendations.
Density mortality in a pen or cage comes from the transmission of virus, bacteria, fungi or parasite. Contributing factors that intersect are transport stress, decreased food and water intake, competition for space, severe social disruption and depression from lack of choice. There are more than 1,400 zoonotic diseases and more than 77 per cent of those are multi-species. As the human population is the largest on Earth, we can expect more disease simply because of proximity. This includes our companion animals.
To stay ahead of the curve, food production must employ new guiding principles: To lead by further reducing transport and standing stress, and to commit to systems that decrease density and short- or long-term crowding.
It looks like a monumental task, but history never seems like history when you are living through it.
The stakeholders in food production will find a way to write the playbook and further contribute to the health and well-being of all living creatures, including humans, in a way that not only flattens the curve, but levels the field for future generations.