By Dr John Töns
The approval by the World Health Organization to re-open the so-called Chinese ‘wet markets’ has managed to thoroughly baffle many Australians. We are by no means alone in that regard, but unlike the average citizen, our politicians have access to a small army of advisers, advisers who should have known better.
To the best of our knowledge the COVID-19 originated from Wuhan’s wet markets. Furthermore, COVID-19 is not the first virus to be traced back to the wet markets. To the average citizen it is an open and shut case. The viruses have come from the wet markets and therefore we should shut them down.
But we should expect a little bit more from our politicians. These wet markets have been operating for hundreds of years yet it is only in the last fifty or so years that they have become a source for new viruses. Should we not ask some questions? Questions like: what has changed? Why now? Why are we suddenly exposed to so many exotic diseases – AIDS, EBOLA to name but two.
But we should not be surprised. In 1962 Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring was published. It documented how our indiscriminate use of DDT had killed not just the pests but also the many ‘good’ insects, this in turn resulted in the death of animals further up the food chain. Paul Ehrlich spent the sixties and seventies warning about the population explosion. His views were rejected on the grounds that human ingenuity would be able to feed many billions of people. Even today we know we produce enough food to feed all 9 billion of people on the planet.
Politicians and the media heeded the myopic views of economists and year after year judged political success by the rate of economic growth rarely questioning what the impact that growth was heaving on the planet. Population growth and the use of pesticides do have an impact on the planet’s biodiversity. It is the loss of biodiversity that has exposed us to the ongoing risks of pandemics.
It should not have come as a surprise. Our history is replete with accounts of civilisations that were effectively wiped out as they came into contact with a new virus. How did they come into contact with these viruses? Firstly, the humanity plays host to a range of viruses – thus when people come into contact with a new civilisation, viruses such as smallpox can devastate a civilisation if they have not been exposed to it. Secondly, as we open more virgin land for agriculture the indigenous viruses look for new hosts. It is this second version that is the cause of these new pandemics. In the case of Asia population pressure means that they are constantly expanding the range of animals from which to source protein. Japan is developing an appetite for jelly fish only because fish stocks have become so depleted that jelly fish have become the most dominant species in their fishing grounds. As we expand our food sources, we likewise expose our risk to new viruses.
So, should our Prime Minister not be concerned about the re-opening of the ‘wet markets’? Only insofar as the wet markets are a symptom of a far deeper problem, one that is already impacting on Australia. This time around our food supply was not impacted – we produce more than enough for our population. But a fresh pest threatens that food supply. The ‘army worm’. The army worm is a native of Africa but is making its way across the world. It has reached North Queensland and we have no reason to suppose that it will heed border controls. The army worm’s voracious appetite can more than account for all of our produce.
So what to do? Our real worry is that politicians and their advisers will take the view that to counter the threat we simply need to throw bigger and better pesticides at it. The problem is that pesticides do not just kill the pests – they also kill all those bugs that are busy enriching the soil, fertilising our plants and protecting our plants. Furthermore, although we have got rid of DDT, we have replaced DDT with a range of other chemicals that are detrimental to our health.
Yet there are solutions. Increasingly around the world farmers are demonstrating that the organic or permaculture route is a productive way forward. We are learning more about companion planting to attract the ‘good bugs’. Creating a farm environment that actively encourages biodiversity will enable us to control pests and produce healthier foods. This does not mean that we are not vulnerable to introduced species, but effective bio-security can reduce that risk.
It is important that our Prime Minister recognises that the real threat from future pandemics lies in the loss of biodiversity and unfettered population growth – using pesticides to protect us is little more than a dog chasing its tail – keeps you active but does not achieve anything.
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