At the heart of our work, we believe that farming within natural systems nurtures healthy people and flourishing ecosystems. Farming is dependent on ecological interactions among many kinds of species. Farms can be safer and more resilient because diversity encourages a wide array of beneficial organisms and processes. Farms are more cost effective with reduced outside inputs, and more climate-friendly because diverse habitats store carbon and buffer farms from storms and droughts. Farming with nature also gives room and rights for our nonhuman brethren to co-exist and prosper.
At the same time that we promote incorporating and accommodating nature on farms and ranches, we advocate leaving wild nature intact, as much as possible. We also support local and regional food systems that respond to people’s needs and that adhere to conservation ethics. These guiding principles can help prevent the spread of pandemic viruses like COVID-19.
Diseases and Climate Change
Ecosystem disruption and decline are causing more disease outbreaks and more impacts to the climate. “Many of these emerging diseases arise from changing environmental conditions — including from deforestation, habitat and biodiversity loss, wildlife exploitation, the bushmeat and traditional medicine trade, confined animal agriculture, and antibiotic misuse,” according to Dr. Jonathan Foley, Executive Director of Project Drawdown.
People keep crowding nature, and with that comes unintended consequences for which we are currently paying the price. The next pandemic could come from cutting down intact forests to produce food, whether it’s to grow crops or graze livestock. The pathogens carried by species in these forests have co-evolved for thousands of years and have come to a kind of equilibrium, in which pathogens may have killed some of its members in years past, and now co-exist with the rest. When animals are crowded, the propensity and rate of disease transmission increase among them. We intrude into a wild area and capture species that have the potential to infect us. And we fragment the habitat, making it easier for rodents, squirrels, monkeys, chimpanzees and bats to come in contact with us or our domestic animals, that then may amplify and share those pathogens with us. We insert ourselves into the mix at great risk without the same immunities.
The interconnections of our planet dictate that when we cut down forests, we increase the release of greenhouse gases and thereby our climatic risk. Not only has the demise of these trees and many others in the world made them unable to absorb existing CO2, but their loss has contributed to the increasing CO2 load in our atmosphere. It’s not getting better. Between 2015-2018, average annual CO2 emissions were 63 percent higher than in the preceding 14 years.
People’s internal biomes are yet another interconnection with nature’s ecosystems and are dependent on our food system. As society strives for sterile human environments and compels many to eat nutritionally vapid, cheaply processed food due to the inequitable distribution of wealth, immune systems are compromised. It’s the people with the lowest immunity that are at the highest risk of dying from the coronavirus. Even if they survive this one, there will always be another virus on the way.
This current pandemic is thought to come from the wet markets, where live, wild animals, extracted from their natural habitats, mixed with people and domestic animals, give rise to pathogens that had never before had access to such hosts. As author David Quammen states about pathogens like COVID-19, “It’s won the sweepstakes.”
A ban on the sale of all wild animals, especially those that move across international lines, is needed. As human numbers increase, and poor people struggle to feed themselves, it is understandable that some go into adjacent forests for desperately needed animal protein. If we were to help to alleviate that poverty, the rest of humanity and wild nature would benefit.
Farming with Nature Versus Despoiling Native Habitats
There is a difference between supporting native species that we have lived with for generations and that have been part of the farm ecology and surrounding landscape, and interacting with other species that have been largely secluded, albeit with indigenous people, for eons in native ecosystems. We have a low risk of catching diseases from the former, and high disease risk from the latter.
We have learned a lot over the past decade about foodborne pathogens. Removing semi-natural vegetation around the farm is not good for food safety and may actually cause more risk, according to a Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences study that used fine-scale land use maps with three datasets comprising ∼250,000 pathogen tests to quantify foodborne pathogen prevalence. Another study showed that when there is a diversity of habitat, there will be a diversity of rodents that don’t share or increase foodborne pathogens. With little natural habitat, one species can multiply, share food and roost sites and escalate the proliferation of pathogens.
Integrated farms with crops and livestock have more organic matter in their soil, and that organic matter supports greater microbial diversity, which reduces the incidence of E. coli pathogens. Livestock manure from non-medicated animals draws dung beetles, which reduce the presence of E. coli pathogens. In a wide-ranging study about birds, little evidence was found linking birds to E. coli, Salmonella or Campylobacter outbreaks. Another study of birds specifically in strawberries showed that fecal contamination is extremely rare (0.01%). Farmers in the US are taking precautions with our food, making sure not to harvest freshly eaten crops like strawberries that have been contaminated by wildlife, livestock or manure.
Industrial management of livestock, where animals in high density are given antibiotics to pre-empt disease and fatten them up quickly, is stimulating the evolution of superbugs that are antibiotic resistant. Wildlife that encounter these operations inadvertently pick up diseases and may spread them into the landscape. These diseases can contaminate our food or infect us.
There are other zoonotic diseases – germs that spread between animals and people – that we have to take precautions for in the US. Farmers may get Brucellosis from infected livestock or hunters may get it from infected game; care must be taken with handling live animals and their carcasses. Rabies is spread to people mainly from infected dogs but also other wildlife; vaccinating pets and keeping a respectable distance from wildlife reduces risk. We can get Lyme disease through tick bites, the Plague and Hanta virus through rodent fleas, and West Nile virus through mosquitoes; wearing long sleeves and long pants and taking many other measures decrease the chance of infection. As the planet warms, ticks’ and mosquitoes’ latitudinal ranges within which they live may alter, making these vectors present more often. Studies suggests that the diversity of animals in landscapes can reduce the incidence of several diseases, including Lyme disease, Hanta virus, and West Nile virus. In these situations, when biodiversity is lost, the species that remain tend to be the most competent reservoirs. With Lyme disease, Hanta virus and West Nile virus, the White-footed Mouse, the Deer-mouse and the American Robin respectively can be high reservoirs when they and very few other species are present, but carry much less when there is a diversity of species around. In biodiverse landscapes, there are also more predators to keep these species in check.
Even progressive agriculture needs to set limits. Our work in helping the organic community protect native ecosystems from being converted overnight to certified crop production will ensure that forests and other vital landscapes function in their climate-resilient capacity here in the states. It will also reduce agriculture’s intrusions into really wild areas of the world.
What We Can Do & Our Hopes for the Future
If we have learned anything about pathogens, it is that management decisions should be based on science, not fear, and certainly not on the fast buck which doesn’t account for the full costs of our actions. The world is realizing that to lessen our exposure to pathogens we need to stop these deep intrusions into natural environments. By doing so, we conserve ecosystems for the climate resiliency benefits and a vast magnitude of biodiversity. We need to reorient our focus on our security and finances to include the health of native species and the ecosystems in which we all live.
We need to expand our support of beneficial birds, insects and other wildlife that provide pest control and pollination services with little risk to ourselves. We need to put livestock out on pastures, decrease their antibiotic use, and reduce the amount of meat we eat. We need programs to reduce poverty near wild areas to lessen encroachments, and in big cities to increase nutrition. We need to decrease or eliminate the wild animal trade. We can cut down the impact and destruction on wild animals and their ecosystems by eating food grown closer to home. We all need to support more local and regional farmers, and get our states to do the same.
We have an opportunity and a moral mandate to make big changes for ourselves and other species with whom we share this planet. As Jane Goodall says, “We have to realize we are part of the natural world, we depend on it, and as we destroy it we are actually stealing the future from our children.”