The consequences of COVID 19 are addressed, but not the causes that caused 200 new diseases such as Coronavirus in the last three decades. None were the product of bad luck. The predatory relationship with nature, the cruelty and unhealthiness in factory farms, the loss of potency of antibiotics and business ambition (2,200 hectares of forests were destroyed in quarantine in Argentina) make our world a bizarre place and every more dangerous time.
“We know that another pandemic will be inevitable. It is coming. And we also know that when this happens we will not have enough drugs, or vaccines, or health workers, or hospital capacity, ”said Lee Jong-wook, then director of the World Health Organization, in 2004. The speech took place while the planet was trying to recover from the scare it had emerged with the bird flu that broke out in Hong Kong in 2003. The doctor warned there something that was very difficult to hear: that a worse outbreak could occur at any moment.
In 2009 for example. When another virus jumped out of a pig to become Influenza A it spread from Mexico to the whole world. Or in 2012 when MERS broke out from camels in Saudi Arabia, reaching infections in 27 countries.
"Not missiles, viruses is what you have to fear," said Bill Gates in the Ted Talk he gave in 2015, after Ebola broke the limits of the bat in 2014 to become a human nightmare.
"It is an emergency", "We must organize preparations", "We need to control viruses": the official documents of the various United Nations agencies, global organizations such as the Gates Foundation and various governments are full of similar warnings. But nothing could be done to prevent Covid-19. Perhaps because in none of those spaces of power was the main trigger of these diseases named clearly and forcefully: the abusive and predatory relationship that we established with nature in general and with other animals in particular.
Cows, pigs, chickens, bats, it doesn't matter what animal it is. If we do not extinguish them while destroying their habitats, we cage, cram, mutilate, traffic, fatten, medicate and deform them to increase their productivity. We strain their bodies and override their instincts as if they were things with practices that are far from marginal: they are taught at university, highlighted at business conferences, and tested on billions while they are manipulated, raised and killed.
I never rode a camel or visited Asian markets where monkeys, birds and armadillos are offered alive in tiny boxes, but I did visit a good number of industrial farms in Latin America where the food comes from that later makes us so much less exotic and cruel, more civilized and secure. And there I learned that the difference between what is offered in Wuhan and what fills many of the supermarket shelves like Carrefour, in matters such as ethics, empathy and public health is imaginary.
Plagues are not new, but they are on the rampage: 200 zoonotic infectious diseases have emerged in the past 30 years, and none are the product of bad luck.
I visited Rosalía de Barón in 2011 while doing the research that would end up in Malcomidos. She - a simple producer of eggs from Crespo, in Entre Ríos - knew perfectly well: her chicken coop was a gold mine with only one weakness: it could unleash the plague.
“Since I've been like this, I've been among the eggs,” he told me and lowered his hand to the ground as we entered the shed that housed some 40,000 hens in full production. Rosalía was a strong woman in her early 40s with Russian blue eyes, worn blonde hair, and the pride of running a prosperous business: 80 boxes of the best quality eggs a day. About ten times more than her farm generated when she was a girl, in the same space. The trick? Automated concentration. The modern chicken coop has no soil, bushes, or sun, but cages of about 40 centimeters where chickens live for four years, piled up by ten. The cages are one on top of the other and one next to the other making the place a labyrinth entirely upholstered with feathers and spikes and legs that are difficult to interpret with the naked eye.
Try to imagine it: ten hens crammed into a space where not one by one would enter comfortably, with no place to flap their wings, lie down, turn around. With no way to satisfy any of your biological requirements other than to give a daily egg.
Crowded the hens can not do more than climb each other, entangle, and stick their heads through the bars until their necks are sore, leaving them raw. It is so stressful that they live that within weeks they become cannibals. To prevent them from eating each other, after a few days of life they amputate the tips of their beaks, which then grow flat as if they had hit a wall hard.
That they do not kill themselves while maintaining the production to the maximum: that is the objective and to achieve it there are interventions like this: mutilations, handling of lights, constant sounds, several days of hunger and thirst. Forced plumbing is called the latter: 15 or 20 days without food or water. Chickens are dying like a toy whose battery is dying: consumed, lying one on top of the other, with dry eyes, open beaks, emitting a barely audible gasp. It is expected that only the strong will survive this induced famine. For those, the ration is renewed and the next day, magic: a new egg, the infernal cackle; for those who can also feel it, fear, broken flesh, the smell of living death.
Visiting factory farms for the first time has something monstrous: neither the eyes, nor the lungs, nor the mind are prepared to apprehend what happens there. What is seen, what animal caretakers - so normal, like a neighbor, an uncle, a dentist - tell. The information comes in stages: the systematization of cruelty, the denial of pain that is evident and the only foundation for all this in the laws of the world of money, so absurd, so perverse, are unintentionally turning into an intimate resistance : you seek that it does not affect you.
Adorno said that you had to look at the slaughterhouses and say they are only animals to understand the origin of Auschwitz.
It is difficult before these hatcheries and their naturalization to say the origin of what they are.
Maybe it's too much.
Rosalía explained what she knew and showed me what was fascinating to her: “I work only two hours a day, the rest is done by itself,” she told me and pressed a button that made the chicken coop begin to move. Below the cages, belts transported eggs to the place where they would be measured and packed. Other belts transported the guano that would end up buried in a pit a few meters from the shed. In the same mechanical choreography, drinkers and feeders were filled with corn, vitamins, and coloring for the orange buds that the market demands today. Factory precision seemed to show that everything was under control. The cold and hard materials covered the entire process in aseptic, despite the obvious - the shit, the fluids, the pustulent eyes, the flying feathers.
"However," Rosalía told me, "nothing is that easy."
The farm was in looming danger.
-Which one? I asked him.
-The diseases. The chickens seem strong but one could get sick and it would be the end, he told me.
I thought of the forced plume: if they resist that weak they are not, I told myself. But I quickly learned that no. Chickens do not survive the flu.
The flu is your Achilles heel.
Keeping diseases under control in a chicken coop is a difficult matter. It requires generating conditions that dematerialize this resounding reality: tens of thousands of animals crammed together, breathing close together, shitting together, one on top of the other, stressed, in pain. It requires permanent cleaning. Requires medication: antibiotics and antivirals. And it requires keeping the rest of nature at bay: the wild birds that carry the viruses that could make that concentration of exhausted animals, irrepressible sources of contagion.
Before setting up the chicken coop, Rosalía had three pheasants and two peacocks running around the farm. But when he closed the last cage, he started the mechanism and did the math, he put his birds in a little room from which he knew they would no longer come out. Then he took care of the herons and ducks that once were a beauty to look at: he bought a rifle and when evening fell he began to shoot at the sky hoping to scare them away. "If any of them got in here, they would lose everything, it would be a disaster," he told me.
It had already happened to their neighbors. An infected chicken coop turns into a massacre. Sanitary slaughter of all animals, this requires the legislation following the protocol dictated by a global agreement. In Asia alone in recent years they had to kill 200 million poultry to prevent viruses from spreading among other domestic animals. But above all to prevent viruses from mutating into versions of themselves that could host in humans, make us sick, collapse health systems and, a few, kill us.
In 1918 the Spanish flu infected half of humanity and killed between 50 and 100 million people (the numbers vary according to how the records of some countries are estimated). While the origin is still under investigation, the most likely point to chicken farms beginning to breed in Kansas. In other words, people intensifying production and breaking the healthy distance between kingdoms - all with their particular microorganisms - to create a new bizarre and increasingly dangerous world.
"All the infectious viruses that afflict us can be related in some way to factory farms," says Rob Wallace, biologist and author of the book Big Farms, Big Flues.
It is a threat that is multiplying exponentially: the number of animals that are raised for food has been growing for decades almost twice as fast as the human population. Right now there are about 70 billion animals locked up like Rosalía's chickens. Poultry, cows, pigs separated by the product to be extracted (meat, eggs, milk), in establishments where they share breed, age and system. And that for nature - whose most important law is the balance it achieves in diversity - means a giant plague. An unavoidable attraction for other animals. A feast for germs. A permanent experiment of mutations and infections that are becoming more extreme every day.
There are ten pets per person. Choose who you want to be. Chickens like Rosalía's. Chickens that get fattened in 50,000 sheds twice as fast as 50 years ago. Calves that grow up in tight pens, amid manure, urine and mud, eating things they are not prepared for: grains, cellulose and (they say no longer) blood from other animals. Relentlessly pregnant cows with udders of 40 liters of milk (four times more than 30 years ago), also cornered. Cramped pigs that are born to sows that live their entire lives in cages the size of their imprisoned bodies.
In any case it will be the same: they will live with red, lacerated and swollen eyes from fatigue, breathing stale air, maintaining a certain rebellion and, except for one misfortune, never sick enough.
The industry managed to generate chemical vests for industrial farms that contain or conceal the expressions expected of living in these conditions: acidity, allergies, heart attacks, infections of the most varied. In a study carried out by the researcher Rafael Lajmanovich in Argentina on chicken sheds, he found traces of all kinds of drugs, from antivirals to clonazepam. And especially antibiotics.
Antibiotics in chicken farming have two uses: to preserve health and to promote fattening. In pigs, the same. Decimating the gut microbiome of animals slows down their metabolism, helping them gain more weight in less time. In dairy farms, the use is different: the demands of these cows that are increasingly filled with milk are so demanding that mammary infections known as mastitis in some places seem irradicable and there is no other way than to withdraw the production animals and put them in treatment.
Thus, 80 percent of the antibiotics produced in the world end up in factory farms, fueling another pandemic that we should begin to register before it rules our lives and, again, collapses us. Because, added to the misuse in human health, the antibiotics that marked a before and after in our life expectancy, are losing their effectiveness. Bacterial resistance causes 700,000 deaths per year today, and if this continues, the number is expected to rise to 10 million by 2050.
Antibiotics, which are given in daily microdoses or in increasingly recurrent treatments, feed the bacteria that these animals harbor, remain in their meat that is then sold to the public, in the soil where their stools end, in the water where everything flows, also our worst ideas.
Antibiotics serve their commercial purpose - animals get fat and endure - but they also make bacteria mutate so they don't die. Like viruses, they leave the hatcheries strengthened in search of new hosts, colonize them, and make them die of things that we would not have died from if the bacteria had not been fed with the cure that for that reason no longer serves us. Tuberculosis, urinary tract infection, sepsis: the death certificate can be completed with any of those things, although it would be more precise to put: collateral damage caused by an insane system.
Anthropocene. This is what our current moment is called, in which we achieve what asteroids do: print our footprint on the geological layers of the planet. Increased radiation, tons of plastic and chicken bones. If an explorer of the future wanted to know what we were, he would find that, without religious restrictions and at a cheaper price than the rest, we ate chickens in the billions that we made them a more important fossil record than that of the majestic whales and lions (probably extinct by then).
Because, yes: this is also the era of the sixth extinction.
And global warming.
And of preventable pandemics.
With the food system as the spearhead, we set out to change the world for the worse, from the visible to the invisible. We became the endangered species of extinction, in a process that knows no quarantines.
“The clearings do not stop. While most of the citizens stay at home, the ambition of some rural entrepreneurs has no restraint. Bulldozers are advancing destroying our last native forests with impunity ”, warned Hernán Giardini a few days ago, who coordinates the Greenpeace forest campaign, with permanent monitoring of deforestation in Argentina. In the last ten days of March they destroyed almost 2,200 hectares of trees, shrubs, wild animals that took thousands of years to create that ecosystem.
The issue is also global: per minute, per day, 365 days a year, 40 nature soccer fields disappear. What takes its place? Cows and monocultures of soy and corn grains to feed other cows in pens, pigs, chickens, chickens. One third of the land is cultivated for industrial farm animal feed. Two or three productions of plants for four or five types of animals.
Biodiversity is the only pest control that exists. A buffer barrier. A net that we unravel leaving us in the open and among the buzzing of mosquitoes with malaria, dengue, yellow fever, and zica. Of vinchucas with chagas. From rodents with hantavirus. Deer with Lyme. In the Amazon, the number of bat bites increased ninefold in deforested areas in recent years.
And so we come to bats and armadillos.
Wild animals, with no place to live, with jibarized nature, come dangerously close to each other. And eventually they get close to animals crammed into factory farms. Or they become specimens that are sold in the wet markets of live animals. Where viruses express themselves, and they mutate. And the bacteria, the same. And in the cities of the world, hotels, theaters, schools become hospitals. And everyday life stops. And it seems that the world is another. But no. The supermarkets are open there where we stand in endless lines to get things - nuggets, eggs, a yogurt - with which we continue to cook the pandemics that will later seem inevitable.
By Soledad Barruti