Ecological Reflections on the Coronavirus

Responses to the crisis should pave the way to a paradigm shift, introducing processes that regenerate the health of people and planet.

by Dr. Vandana Shiva

mostafa meraji via Unsplash

The coronavirus health crisis is connected to the emergency of extinction and disappearance of species, and to the climate emergency. All emergencies are rooted in a mechanistic, militaristic, anthropocentric world view of humans as separate from, and superior to other beings who we can own, manipulate, and control. It is also rooted in an economic model based on the illusion of limitless growth and limitless greed which systematically violates planetary boundaries and ecosystem and species integrity.

The planet’s health and our health are non-separable . As Dr. King reminded us, “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

We can be linked worldwide through the spread of disease like the coronavirus when we invade the homes of other species, manipulate plants and animals for commercial profits and greed, and spread monocultures .

Or we can be connected through health and wellbeing for all by protecting diversity of ecosystems and protecting the biodiversity, integrity, self-organization (autopoiesis) of all living beings, including humans.

New diseases are being created because a globalized, industrialized, inefficient food and agriculture model is invading the ecological habitat of other species and manipulating animals and plants with no respect for their integrity and their health. The illusion of the Earth and her beings as raw material to be exploited for profits is creating one world connected through disease.

The health emergency that the coronavirus is waking us up to is connected to the emergency of extinction and disappearance of species, and it is connected to the climate emergency. All these emergencies are rooted in a mechanistic, militaristic, anthropocentric world view of humans as separate from, and superior to other beings who we can own, manipulate and control. It is also rooted in an economic model based on the illusion of limitless growth and limitless greed which systematically violates planetary boundaries and ecosystem and species integrity.

As forests are destroyed, as our farms become industrial monocultures to produce toxic, nutritionally empty commodities, and our diets become degraded through industrial processing with synthetic chemicals and genetic engineering in labs, we get connected through disease — instead of being connected through biodiversity within, and outside us, through a continuum of health through and in biodiversity .

The health emergency calls for a systems approach based on interconnectedness. We need to look at systems that spread disease and systems that create heath in a holistic way.

A systems approach to health care in times of the corona crisis would address not just the virus, but also how new epidemics are spreading as we invade the homes of other beings. It also needs to address the co-morbidity conditions related to non-communicable chronic diseases which are spreading due to non-sustainable, anti-nature, and unhealthy industrial food systems.

A systems approach to health care in times of the corona crisis would address not just the virus, but also how new epidemics are spreading as we invade the homes of other beings.

As we wrote in the Food For Health Manifesto for the International Commission on the Future of Food, we need to discard “policies and practices that lead to the physical and moral degradation of the food system while destroying our health and endangering the planet’s ecological stability, and endangering the biogenetic survival of life on the planet.”

We must now deglobalize the food system which is driving climate change, disappearance of species, and a systemic health emergency. Globalized, industrialized food systems spread disease. Monocultures spread disease. Deforestation is spreading disease .

As the current situation shows, we can deglobalize when there is political will. Let us make this deglobalization permanent. Let us transition to localization — a system where biodiverse agriculture and food systems boosts health and reduces ecological footprints, leaving space for diverse species, diverse cultures and diverse local living economies to thrive.

We must now deglobalize the food system which is driving climate change, disappearance of species, and a systemic health emergency.

Rich biodiversity in our forests, our farms, our food, our gut microbiome makes the planet — and her diverse species, including humans — healthier and more resilient to pests and diseases .

How our toxic food system promotes and spreads disease

The invasion of forests violates the integrity of species and spreads new diseases. Over the past 50 years, 300 new pathogens have emerged as we destroy habitats and manipulate them for profit. Prominent examples include Ebola, which has been linked to rapid deforestation; Kyasanur Forest Disease, (KFD), a highly pathogenic virus that spread from monkeys to humans through virus-infected ticks as deforestation shrunk the forest habitat of monkeys in South Kanara, India; and ‘mad cow disease’, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), a disease that affects the brains of cattle and infects humans with CJD, which is fatal. When animals are manipulated and their integrity and right to health is violated, new diseases can — and do — emerge .

The illusion that plants and animals are machines for manufacturing raw materials that become fuel for our bodies, which are also machines, has created the industrial agriculture and food paradigm at the root of the explosion of chronic diseases is in our times.

A toxic, industrialized, globalized food system is leading to an explosion of non-communicable chronic diseases. In the last few decades, non-communicable chronic disease are spreading exponentially and killing people by the millions. Toxic industrial food systems are a major contributor to chronic diseases such as cancer, which is responsible for almost 10 million deaths each year, and diabetes, which kills 1.7 million people annually and causes complications that lead to blindness, kidney failure, heart attacks, strokes, and limb amputation for many, many more.

A toxic, industrialized, globalized food system is also leading to an explosion of non-communicable chronic diseases.

The risks from infectious diseases like the coronavirus increase manifold when combined with chronic diseases. Governments need to take the WHO as seriously on cancer as they have done the corona pandemic.

The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) of the WHO has identified glyphosate made by Bayer and Monsanto as a probable carcinogen. This advice needs to be taken seriously. The corporate attack on IARC is contributing to the health emergency, and must be stopped.

Thousands of cancer cases linked to glyphosate have been filed in US courts. In the cases of Johnson Edwin Hardeman, and Alva and Alberta Pilliod, the courts have ruled in favor of the cancer victims .

Governments need to ban chemicals that are leading to harm. And they need to hold the corporations responsible to account for the harm they have done .

My agriculture journey began with the Bhopal genocide, which killed thousand when a pesticide plant owned by Union Carbide leaked. Union Carbide is now Dow, which has merged with Dupont.

The connection between industrialized agriculture and Big Pharma

The same companies that created toxic diseases by pushing globalized industrialized agriculture are also part of Big Pharma. They spread disease and gain from it. Bayer is a pharmaceutical and agrochemical company selling toxic pesticides. Syngenta is an agrochemicals company and as Novartis sells pharmaceuticals.

Big Pharma is using the current health emergency to expand its markets and profits. The protection that governments give to such companies must go. Instead governments at all levels must work with citizens and communities to create poison-free food and farming that promotes people’s health with the same force with which they have taken action on the coronavirus.

We need to remove chemicals that have created a health disaster from the food system. Governments need to follow the advice of the UN and the WHO on all issues related to health with the same enthusiasm they have shown with the coronavirus.

Governments at all levels must work with citizens and communities to create poison-free food and farming that promotes people’s health, with the same force with which they have taken action on the coronavirus.

The cost of treating new chronic diseases has grown exponentially in the last two decades, in line with the spread of industrial food and farming through globalization. As we outlined in our Food and Health Manifesto, 2012 study, for example, shows that the use of 133 pesticides led to an annual cost of €78 million in healthcare. The same year, a survey of Brazil concluded that the total cost of acute pesticide poisoning amounts to $149 million each year. Another study published in 2005 estimated that in the US the costs for chronic diseases through pesticide poisonings amounted to $1.1 billion, of which about 80 percent for cancer.

To come up with more recent data and come closer to the European reality, we can turn to research assessing the burden of diseases and costs related to exposure to endocrine disruptors in Europe: a panel of experts evaluated with “strong probability” that every year 13 million IQ points are lost due to prenatal exposure to organophosphates (a type of pesticide), and that there are an additional 59,300 cases of intellectual disability. Since it has been estimated that each point of IQ lost for prenatal exposure to mercury is worth about €17,000, we can assume similar costs for those caused by organophosphates.

The health consequences of maladapted modernity, driven by commercial food systems are currently being experienced in epidemic proportions across the world. Apart from premature death and prolonged disability, diseases resulting from nutritionally poor diets are forcing people to seek expensive health care, which is often unaffordable.

Commercial health care systems are beneficiaries of these modern epidemics, by offering technology intensive and high cost tests and treatments for health disorders that could and should have been easily prevented through good nutrition and a healthy environment. The merger of Bayer and Monsanto implies that the same corporations who sell the chemicals that are causing diseases also sell pharmaceuticals as cures for the diseases they have caused.

The global costs of health care due to food system related illness are soaring, with obesity set to cost $1.2 trillion by 2025, diabetes $1.5 trillion by 2030, and cancer $2.5 trillion. Already, the annual cost of exposure to endocrine disruptors totals $209 billion in Europe and $340 billion in the US.

And it is the planet and people who bear the burden of disease.

Regulation: a matter of life and death

As the current crisis shows, government regulation is a matter of life and death — and the precautionary principle is more vital than ever before. It should not be abandoned with the false claim that “time is our biggest enemy” and any manipulation of living organisms should be rushed to introduction in the environment with little or no testing.

The merger of Bayer and Monsanto implies that the same corporations who sell the chemicals that are causing diseases also sell pharmaceuticals as cures for the diseases they have caused.

There is an attempt to undermine the precautionary principle through free trade agreements like the United States and European Union’s so-called “mini-deal” on trade. According to US trade negotiators, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, and American farm interests, the precautionary principle must go, and now is the time to finally axe it through the US-EU trade deal

Governments need to ensure biosafety and food safety assessments are not influenced by the industry that benefits from manipulating living organisms and suppresses scientific evidence of harm. The evidence of such manipulation of research and attack on scientists and science by the industry was presented at the Monsanto Tribunal and People’s Assembly in the Hague in 2016.

The harm caused to people’s health by corporate manipulation of research is now proven. Governments need to immediately strengthen biosafety and health regulation. The global attempt at deregulation of food safety and biosafety regulations must be stopped. Gene editing has unpredictable impacts and new products based on gene editing need to be regulated as a genetically modified organism (GMO), because the genome has been modified, and we need to assess and know the impact on health of the manipulation at the genetic level.

New attempts at gene drives to genetically manipulate organisms to drive them to extinction must be stopped to prevent crimes against nature and unintended impacts such as new, unknown diseases through.

With the coronavirus, governments are showing they can take action to protect the health of people. It is now time for them to take all the steps necessary to stop all activities that compromise our health by compromising the metabolic processes which regulate our health. The same systems also cause harm to the planet’s biodiversity, the Earth’s self-regulating capacity — leading to climate havoc.

The corona crisis and the response to the crisis needs to become the ground for stopping processes that degenerate our health and the planet’s health, and starting process that regenerate both .

We know that industrial agriculture and industrialized, globalized food systems based on fossil fuels and toxic chemicals derived from fossil fuels are contributing to species extinction, climate change, and the chronic disease catastrophe.

We know that biodiversity-based, regenerative organic farming can address all three crises.

An opportunity to localize and decolonize our food system

It is time for governments to stop using our tax money to subsidize and promote a food system that is making the planet and people sick.

Corporations should be held liable for the harm they have done and prevented from continuing to be free to do more harm by undermining independent science and research ,which is the only source of real knowledge of harm to health .

The crisis also gives people an opportunity to see how corporations have undermined our health. Corporate accountability is a health imperative and nurturing corporation-free, democratic, biodiverse, healthy food systems, and allowing a flourishing of biodiversity and knowledge systems has become a survival imperative.

The health emergency has shown that the right to health is a fundamental right, health is a commons and a public good, and the government has a duty to protect public health. That is why the privatization and corporatization of health should stop, and public health care systems should be protected and strengthened where they exist, and created where they don’t.

Corporate accountability is a health imperative. Nurturing democratic, biodiverse, healthy food systems, and allowing a flourishing of biodiversity and knowledge systems has become a survival imperative.

The path to a healthy planet and healthy people is clear.

An economy based on limitless growth is leading to a limitless appetite to colonize the land and forests, destroying the homes of other species and indigenous people. The Amazon is being burnt for GMO crops for animal feed. The Indonesian rainforests are being destroyed for palm oil.

Disease is being created by the unlimited demand for resources of a globalized economy based on unlimited growth. An economy of greed is violating the rights of Mother Earth.

Health for all begins is based on protecting the Earth, her ecological processes, and the ecological space and ecological integrity of all life, including humans .

An economy based on limitless growth is leading to a limitless appetite to colonize the land and forests, destroying the homes of other species and indigenous people.

We need to shift from a mechanistic, militaristic paradigm of agriculture based on war chemicals to regenerative agroecology, an agriculture for life based on biodiversity and working with a living nature, not engaging in war against the Earth and her diverse species. Central to a living agriculture is care and gratitude, of giving back to the earth, the law of return or the law of giving, creating circular economies which heal the Earth and our bodies.

Indigenous systems of health care have been criminalized by colonization and the pharmaceutical industry.

We need to shift from a reductionist, mechanistic, militaristic paradigm based on separation from and colonization of the Earth, other species and our bodies that have contributed to the health crisis, to systems like Ayurveda: the science of life, which recognizes that we are part of the Earth’s living web of life, that our bodies are complex, self-organized living systems, that we have a potential to be healthy or sick depending on our environment and the food we grow and eat. Health depends on healthy food. A healthy gut is an ecosystem and is the basis of health. Health is harmony and balance.

Indigenous health systems and knowledge systems that are based on interconnectedness need to be recognized and rejuvenated in times of the health emergency we face .

Central to a living agriculture is care and gratitude, of giving back to the earth, the law of return or the law of giving, creating circular economies which heal the Earth and our bodies.

Health is a continuum, from the soil to the plants to our gut microbiome.

While industrial globalized agriculture which is destroying the forests, and the biodiversity of our farms is justified as feeding the world, 80 percent of the food we eat comes from small farms. Monoculture farms produce commodities, not food.

Industrial globalized agriculture is a hunger- and disease-creating system. It has spread diseases related to toxins and is destroying the small farms that feed us by trapping farmers in debt and driving them to suicide.

This disease-creating unhealthy food system is subsidized by our tax money, first by providing subsidies for production and distribution, and then making people pay for the high costs of health care.

If we add the subsidies and health externalities of industrial, globalized food systems, we realize that neither the planet nor people can continue to bear the burden of this disease-creating industrial, globalized food system.

Ecological agriculture free of chemicals needs to be part of the rejuvenation of public health.

Unlike industrial farms, small farms take care of people’s health, especially when they are chemical free, organic and biodiverse. We should direct all public funding to support agroecological farms and local economies as part of a flourishing health system.

Through biodiversity and organic matter in the soil, we grow more nutrition per acre, and our plants are healthier and more resistant to diseases and pests. Returning organic matter to the soil also heals the broken carbon and nitrogen cycles, which are driving climate change. Healing the planet and healing our bodies are interconnected processes.

Ecological agriculture free of chemicals needs to be part of the rejuvenation of public health.

We need biodiversity intensification and rewilding of our farms, not chemical and capital intensification. Biodiversity creates cultures and economies of care, including care for the health of the Earth and people. The more biodiversity we conserve on the planet, the more we protect the ecological space for diverse species to sustain themselves and we protect their integrity to evolve in freedom and resilience. All species have their right to ecological space and freedom to evolve, and all humans as part of the Earth have a right to access to chemical-free, biodiverse food.

We need to protect the biodiversity of our forests, farms, and food to increase the biodiversity of our gut which is the true source of health. Plantations are not forests, and growing monoculture commercial plantations of trees or GMO soya is a threat to diverse species, diverse cultures, and our own health .

Biodiverse organic systems need to become a central part of the public health solution to the health emergency we are witnessing.

Healing the planet and healing our bodies are interconnected processes.

Biodiversity of the mind must replace the monocultures of the mechanistic mind which see life’s diversity as the enemy to be exterminated.

India’s greeting namaste has gone global in times of the coronavirus. The significance of namaste is not separation but a deeper unity that connects us all. Namaste means “I bow to the divine in you”. It signifies an interconnectedness that we are part of a sacred universe where everything is permeated by the divine for the benefit of all, the exclusion of none.

This is the consciousness of oneness and unity we need to cultivate in these times, when a small virus has connected us across the globe through disease and panic.

Let not the social isolation required in a health emergency become a permanent pattern of separation, destroying community and social cohesion. Let not closure of local markets and farmers markets become a permanent closure to create a future of farming without farmers in the Bayer-Monsanto vision, and fake food which destroys our health while billionaires extract profits from the currency of life.

The future depends on our oneness as humanity on a shared planet, connected through biodiversity and health. Let not the cautions of today be cemented into a permanent climate of fear and isolation. We need each other and the Earth in our rich diversity and self-organization to create resilience in times of the emergency, and to regenerate health and wellbeing in the post-corona world.

The corona crisis creates a new opportunity to make a paradigm shift from the mechanistic, industrial age of separation, domination, greed, and disease, to the age of Gaia, of a planetary civilization based on planetary consciousness that we are one earth family. That our health is One Health rooted in ecological interconnectedness, diversity, regeneration, and harmony.

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Dr. Vandana Shiva is a physicist, social activist, and founder of the Research Foundation for Science, Technology, and Natural Resource Policy (RFSTN), an organization devoted to developing sustainable methods of agriculture.

This article was originally published on the author’s blog on March 18th, 2020. This is an abridged, edited version published with permission.

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