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Dr. Rob Wallace is an evolutionary biologist and public health phylogeographer. He is a visiting scholar at the Institute for Global Studies at the University of Minnesota and an advisor to the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy.
Abstract: Our economy is transforming planet Earth into planet Farm. Forty percent of the planet’s ice-free land surface is dedicated to agriculture. Livestock, representing over 70% of vertebrate biomass, use a third of our available freshwater and a third of our cropland for feed. Industrial animal production is a major source of greenhouse gases. Agribusiness’s impact extends to the deadliest of diseases. If by its global expansion alone, commodity agriculture increasingly acts as a gateway through which a wide array of deadly xenospecific pathogens are migrating from the deepest forests and most backwater of farms to the most cosmopolitan of cities. Ebola and Zika both recently re-emerged when logging, mining, and intensive agriculture opened up neotropical forests to their escape. There are other pathogens evolving more directly off megafarms. Nipah virus, Q fever, yellow fever, SARS, MERS, hepatitis E, Salmonella, foot-and-mouth disease, antibiotic-resistant bacteria, and a veritable grocery list of novel influenza variants have now emerged.
As a matter of standard industrial practice, such diseconomies of scale are externalized off agribusiness margins to governments, the indigenous, workers, consumers, taxpayers, livestock, and wildlife. That is, pathogen fitness is directly tied into the political economy of food production. We can model such connections, some efforts around which we will touch on here. But there are broader implications in play as well. The search for a more perspicacious evolutionary biology is not necessarily divided from the fight for a better world. Hume’s guillotine and Moore’s naturalist fallacy, wise cautionaries at the heart of much of the natural sciences, are often circumstantially fallacious. Whereas many a new scientist is taught in the lab–as opposed to the classroom–that conducting good research revolves around avoiding professionally awkward study questions, in actuality the struggles for truth and justice can be deeply entwined.