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The real threat from future pandemics

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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13 comments

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  1. TuffGuy

    The author appears to have misinterpreted his real target. He talks a lot about “wet markets” which sell fish and meat and vegetables and such when in fact he should be talking about “wildlife markets” which sell exotic animals like bats and dogs and pangolins. Wildlife markets are where COVID-19 is thought to have originated, not wet markets

  2. Kerri

    Scottyfrommarketing would reply to this article by saying this……..
    “Woof woof”

  3. Josephus

    But are we sure that both the exotic creatures and the fish and veg are not both sold at the same markets?

  4. Matters Not

    Yes – be careful about generalising when it comes to ‘wet markets’ and the products sold or not. The Wuhan ‘wet market’, for example, sold the whole range, including wildlife. Personally, been to a few in China and Vietnam where ‘anything goes’. Or at least it did back then.

  5. Jack Cade

    It has been suggested that bats have never been part of the menagerie sold at the Wuhan wet markets. But the number of species sold there suggest that anything that can be caught would be available there. And bats seem to have been implicated in most virus outbreaks in the last 30 years or so, whether from their being eaten or simply their proximity. The viruses seem to need to be filtered through another species before they threaten humans.
    As I have posted before, a colony of fruit bats numbering about 20,000 has established itself in the Adelaide parklands over the last decade or so; they are entirely new to the Adelaide area – maybe even to SA. Commuters park their cars in the vicinity of the Adelaide Botanic gardens and the vehicles end up being coated in bat droppings. The Hendra outbreak in racehorses was attributed to fruit bats, I forget whether direct from droppings or from parasites. Breathing in bat-infested caves can be fatal.
    When I lived in Brisbane I thought fruit bat colonies were ‘cute’, but my Brisbane friends didn’t agree. I understand that destruction of their habitat elsewhere may have caused them to migrate to the Adelaide area but I don’t know what foods have attracted them.
    I find them mildly sinister, but that maybe from a childhood reading horror comics.

  6. paul walter

    Here is a bit of background concerning how the IPA types see the Covid19 lockdown.

    I observed the IPA’s Adam Creighton skulking in the shadows of the Drum set this evening and somewhat later observed a link from a viewer about…people like Adam Creighton.

    The right’s way of thinking about coronavirus shows it is a death cult

    I tried to hunt down the Creighton piece, but it is paywalled at the Australian,
    so I went a bit further and found this at the IA site:

    The right’s way of thinking about coronavirus shows it is a death cult

    Why include these here?

    Because this site is also very, very honest and both the editors and readership need to know they are not alone in their perplexity at the macabre approach the right, starting with Trump, take toward the pandemic and and efforts to curb it, which these people (psychopaths?)so recklessly jeopardise.

  7. whatever

    Yes, we should avoid paternalistic finger-pointing at the Chinese and saying “Oh yuck! They eat cats” and try to deal with our own Third World obsession with keeping the airports open and planes flying in and out during a quarantine.
    Scotty has been TOLD by BigBusiness (probably mainly Gerry Harvey, which again shows how Third World we have become) to end the lockdowns by next month, May. This is despite the many medical experts who are warning of a “second wave” of contagion.

    https://www.afr.com/world/asia/second-covid-19-wave-could-hit-china-in-november-expert-says-20200415-p54jz5

  8. New England Cocky

    Two brief points:

    1) Pesticides – Glyophate, also knows as Roundup, is currently at the centre of a large class action for being man alleged cause of cancer. The biological magnification of pesticides and heavy metals up the food chain is well known in science.

    2) Population Explosion – Paul Erich in the 1970s was correct with his predictions of over-population as shown by the about 9 BILLION Homo sapiens estimated to be living at the moment ….. if you consider the poverty conditions found in too many Asian, African, Central American, South American and European countries “living”. The optimal strategy to facilitate birth control in underdeveloped countries is to educate the women and girls while giving them an economic reason to be different and as seen in India with micro-economic projects, where the birth rate is mitigated.

  9. johno

    How many sheep, cows, chooks, kangaroos, ducks, rabbits, geese etc, etc, etc do us aussies eat. Answer – A lot.

  10. paul walter

    Yeah, but not in one go!

  11. guest

    A very relevant article. Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962) is a classic which has had some impact on our thinking about the poisoning of our environment. Concerned people spend time cleaning up beaches and a whole industry in waste management was developing by sending our rubbish to China until China stopped it and we had to do more here in Oz, even if it meant trucking waste over the border into Queensland to avoid charges.

    Bill McKibben’s The End of Nature (1989) made an impassioned plea to take note of the destruction of the natural world in the creation of massive mono-cultures or even deserts over time. McKibben predicted two ways to go: the Defiant Reflex or a more humble way of living. The Defiant Reflex is illustrated by people like Creighton and other Murdoch/IPA scribblers who rattle on about red and Green regulation restrictions on the joys of free trade and endless growth. McKibbon is less optimistic about the ultimate success of human greed.

    Charles Massy’s Call of the Reed Warbler: A new Agriculture, a new Earth (2017) promotes the kind of permaculture of biodiversity mentioned in this article. It is a practice taken up more and more in farming and in suburban backyards. It avoids the wide use of poisons and artificial chemicals sold at great cost by BigAg.

    Simon Reeves, in his travel documentaries on tv, often demonstrates environmental matters, such as the melting ice in Alaska, olive tree disease in Italy, land clearing in Central America and Brazil…

    If there is one insect we might be especially concerned about, it is the bee. I believe Oz is exporting bees to replenish losses in the US.

  12. johno

    @Paul… yep, you are absolutely correct. Not all at once. The way we are going biodiversity will become a byword of history.

  13. NB

    Any discussion of permaculture and organic agriculture as opposed to conventional agriculture should at least canvas the issue of yield penalties. Failure to do so is a classic paddock perspective rather than system perspective. There is a system cost to going down the extensive organic route which is not necessarily evident at farm scale. If I had to make a bet, I would put my money on intensive glasshouse production. When combined with tight biosecurity controls it may eliminate much of the need to spray some crops.

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