Rob Wallace is an evolutionary biologist and the author of “Big Farms Make Big Flu: Dispatches on Infectious Disease, Agribusiness, and the Nature of Science” (Monthly Review Press). Through a dialectical process he shows us how Big Agriculture and its organization and methodology conflict with the epidemiological controls needed to stop flu epidemics from emerging and killing millions of people. Socialist Action's John Schraufnagel and Bud Schulte sat down with Rob Wallace in late November 2016 at May Day Books in Minneapolis.
curious about how you came to your Marxist approach to science.
parents were radical scientists. My father is trained as a physicist,
my mother as a marine biologist. They met on a picket protesting my
father’s professors in the Physics Department [at Columbia
University] who were working with the JASON group at the time. The
JASON group were physicists helping the DOD come up with various
weapons systems, including Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles.
parents helped found “Scientists and Engineers Against the War.”
That same year, “Science for the People” was founded in Boston.
This is a time when there were so many radical scientists that those
two groups were rivals. If only we were in that stage again! So I
grew up cultivating a certain sensibility around the dinner table:
that against bourgeois scientific practice, truth and justice are
I first started grad school, I put these notions into practice. As a
grad student at the City University of New York, I participated in a
lot of student activism. So I had activism and I had science, and
some of it spilled over and some of it didn’t. But it was working
on influenza as a postdoc at the University of California that the
pieces really came together. I began to think through what bourgeois
science is and what it destroys, and later, the way I got squeezed
out [of establishment science] for saying what was right in front of
is a process. Once you come through your training, it seems like an
obvious path, but really there are twists and turns along the
way—misdirections, convergences, realizations. The most obvious
realizations often take years to crystalize.
message is sent when you are bounced out of establishment science for
what you think is good work. For a long time it seems like even if
you object to the premises of the typical science, at least you’re
able to pay bills. But then when you are told that doing good work is
not what is wanted, when you have always believed that science is
about figuring out complicated problems in natural phenomena and you
are told not to figure them out anymore, then there is a profound
break between the system that helped produce you as a scientist and
the desire to help that system any more.
can see what the larger system does to people around you and the
broader world. That happens to a lot of scientists: The accumulation
of understanding of how [scientists] are used and abused—not to
advance science but for a system that only cares about
advancing its particular
brand of science.
Just today, I saw several headlines—Ebola is changing faster than
they thought. And new flu outbreaks—I think today I read about one
in Sweden. H5N8, I think, is all across Europe now. Is this something
That’s the interesting question. Despite the fact that some of the
influenzas are celebrities—H5N1 was at century’s turn and then
H1N1, the swine flu [that emerged outside Mexico City in 2009]—these
are only two of multiple new reassortants that evolved and spread
over the past 30 years. And in ways that many scientists would agree
have not been seen before. Multiple new strains that have emerged,
and largely (in our hypothesis, speaking very broadly), it’s
because the spread of globalized monoculture hog and poultry
Explain how segmenting and reassortment work.
Influenza has a segmented genome. It has eight segments. When you
have two different influenza types that occupy the same host, they
can trade the segments like a deck of cards. Most of the time, the
influenza that comes out of that exchange is crap, but every so often
you get a Royal Flush from it, and that new combination is much
better in a particular host species, or in spreading to humans, than
recombination accelerates evolution by virtue of the biology of the
virus. And that has happened historically—throughout the history of
influenza. At lot of the reassortment happens when all the different
wild waterfowl species come together in the summer up in the Arctic
Circle. That kind of trading has happened for eons. In influenza
time, anyway, that’s in eons.
is now also happening within industrial hog and poultry, and
[scientists] have been able to track the shift and see this kind of
reassortment going on. Typically, as in all organisms, you might have
a mutation, a point mutation, within the genetic code at a single
nucleotide position that changes the virus. And that still happens,
but this reassortment, this trading of whole segments, is an
accelerant through evolution that allows the virus to arrive upon
entirely new adaptations in ways that point mutation alone wouldn’t
allow them. Or, in any short order anyway.
so, when biologists speak about H1N1s and H5N8s and all other
combinations, those are different numbers for the types
of hemagglutinin and
a kind of molecular key that allows the virus to key into the host
cell. The neuraminidase, the N in, say, the H1N1, is a glycoprotein
that allows the virus to key out of the cell once it has replicated
in the host cell.
are two of the eight segments. The H’s and the N’s, yes, but then
you have all these internal genes that are recombining as well. So
swine flu H1N1, it’s not like the seasonal H1N1. It has the
and the neuraminidase 1, but the internal segments are all different.
So the influenzas trade these different “cards,” and they arrive
upon these different combinations of influenza that allow the virus
to react to, say, a new host or a new circumstance in a way that it
the last 30 years, there’s been a clear acceleration in the
evolution of the virus through this reassortment, and there’s a
growing understanding among scientists that in all likelihood it’s
being driven by the industrialization of poultry and hog, which are
now traded from one side of the planet to the other, mixing
previously isolated strains.
I was an eviscerator at a hog plant. Does this account for the fact
that workers would get recurrent flus (especially those that work
inside the animals)? We thought maybe you’d be immune to it the
next year, but no such luck—you get it again and again and again.
question is very specific, but it has broad implications because it
asks us, what is the nature of science? A lot of biologists would
focus on how the virus evolved, and that work needs to be done, it is
a necessary part of it, but viruses do not merely evolve in the
abstract, they evolve in a specific concrete context. And that
concrete context now is a particular neoliberal agriculture, and how
animals are organized, how they are grown, how labor is treated, the
directions subsidies run. All these things are fundamentally
integrated and have a profound effect on the evolution of the virus.
ultimately, I try to point this context out throughout the book in
order to explain the evolution of the virus. Virology and molecular
biology, while necessary, are insufficient. You need the bigger
picture of all these other factors in order to offer a cogent
explanation for the evolution of the new pathogens.
to your question: There was a paper I cite in the book in which
researchers describe the shifts in the hog industry through the 1990s
and its effects on influenza. Before World War II, but especially
afterward, you had a Livestock Revolution here in the United States
in the poultry sector. You have all the consolidation across the
companies and all the big companies—Tyson and others—began to
take over production all the way from breeding to distribution. So
you reduce the variety of birds, the number of farms declines, and
the number of heads per farm increases.
hog industry didn’t consolidate until the 1990s. That was late in
the game. The hog sector followed in poultry’s footsteps, and that
had a profound effect on everybody associated—not just companies,
not just the hog, but the workers involved as well—and the farmers.
And so it is an integrated epidemiology where what happens to the
industry affects how the hogs are exposed to the viruses, which
affects the workers who are handling them. And so, some of the work
that I quote in the book describes how whatever perfect storm may be
emerging for influenza–if it is going to make its way out into
human populations—in all likelihood, it’s going to go through the
farm workers who are handling the live hog.
behind the obsession with finding “patient zero” whenever there’s
an outbreak? They are doing so now with Ebola, but I remember in the
1980s, there was a huge “hunt” for the patient zero of the AIDS
can always look at a particular outbreak and try to identify a
patient zero, but in many ways the search for patient zero distracts
or detracts from looking at the broader picture, from examining the
larger social forces—the context—of an outbreak. Explanations
compete with each other. One explanation may be favored as a way of
avoiding talking about the bigger picture. Something can be true and
miss the big picture.
Ebola is a virus. Yeah, it can be spread by burial practice. But you
are completely ignoring the larger context that is pushing the
emergence of multiple pathogens. In this case, our team’s
conclusion is that the outbreak is an expression of neoliberalism in
West Africa. West Africa has long been pillaged, but there is a
particular shift that it’s undergoing that is connected to a
particular type of globalization at this point in time.
the epicenter of the West Africa outbreak, had not been long part of
that integration, unlike Liberia, which had been on the front end of
it since 1925 with the Firestone Rubber Company. Liberia has been
pillaged to the point that almost 45% of its land has been leased out
to foreign companies. Guinea was kind of trailing on that, but has
recently begun to turn in that direction.
if we look at palm oil, as the land gets eaten up in Indonesia,
Malaysia, and Thailand, global palm oil looks for other places to
grow its crop—the Amazon and the Congo. Even though there aren’t
foreign companies in Guinea yet, the agricultural sector is changing
now. There was pressure on the state to try to develop some response
to the changes in the global market, so production went from a
parastatal cooperative developing Guinean palm oil to a state company
that began to do all the classic development from the second half of
Marx’s “Capital,” Book I. The enclosures and all the stuff that
he described for early capitalist agriculture in England—you can
see it being played out in Guinea. And so, the state company starts
to violate the commons, enclose it, consolidate, select for a
particular type of industrial hybrid palm oil, and clear the land so
you can start producing at scale.
hypothesis was that this had an effect on the ecology. If a bunch of
host species in the forest die out, then their pathogens die with
them. But some of those [host] species are going to prosper. You have
some bat species, bird species, and monkeys that are quite adaptable
and can prosper and do quite well in this new agroforestry. Some bat
species, which are documented Ebola carriers, are attracted to
the palm oil, and that increases the interface between humans and
[scientific] group had a hypothesis that it was an insectivore
bat—another Ebola reservoir—that was the cause of the particular
outbreak that infected a particular boy. Again, the focus on patient
zero. The insectivore hypothesis may be true, but does it miss the
tracked that particular bat species as also attracted to cash crops.
Maybe not palm oil as we had hypothesized, but macadamia and sugar
cane. Focusing on the bat, while important, misses the bigger picture
that it is the change in broader agroecology that has had an effect
on changing the interface between these reservoirs of pathogens and
humans. In fact, we went all the way back to show that every
outbreak was prefaced with capital-led shifts in land use, even to
the first outbreak in 1976 in Southern Sudan.
and their outbreaks are a mirror, a reflection of our mode of
civilization. And the ones that win out are telling us something
about ourselves. The biology of the pathogen matters because it is
figuring out something about the nature of our social organization
and what it does. Our effects are profound and far and wide.
one of those pathogens—HIV, Ebola, and so on—going all the way
back to the beginning of civilization, are marginal at first, and
then when we change something in the landscape or in our cultural
practice, a new ecosystem niche opens up, and the pathogens take
advantage of it—a nice convergence of biology and ecosystemic
circumstance. Every new emergent pathogen, all the way back, can be
explained that way.
Doesn’t the hunt for patient zero also serve the media agenda? They
play on fears but in a way that deflects attention from the actual
need to object to trying to scare people–using public health
warnings as a weapon [of fear]. But there are those among us who
would say that such warnings are sometimes also very much needed and
often badly downplayed.
real question is: What problem are we going to focus on? The notion
that someone from West Africa is in a Texas hospital and infected a
couple nurses—that sucks—but is it going to lead to an
apocalyptic outbreak here in the U.S.? The answer is no. But there
are some really big, horrible changes going on in West Africa, on the
other hand. It’s not just about West Africa, because the Ebola
outbreak arose out of relational geography.
neoliberal deforestation and mining is driving the emergence of
multiple pathogens, where’s the money that is funding that
deforestation? This is why in the book I talk about how Hong Kong and
New York and London should be considered “hot spots” of disease.
That’s where the sources of capital that are driving the
deforestation and development originate.
it is not just the public health scene but the broader media and
political consciousness that is organized around accepted premises
that are required to continue a system that exploits people here in
the States and abroad. I see it time and again in public health:
brilliant, good hearted people, doing the right thing but repeatedly
arriving at the wrong conclusion because they accept the premises of
the system that drives the outbreaks and on which they rely.
All the articles I was reading today [about the most recent avian
influenza outbreak in Sweden] were blaming wild birds for all the
problems. Do you have any comment on that?
Yes, they are blaming wild birds. Various health commissioners and
agricultural ministers would say that’s why we need to pack in all
the poultry and keep them on the farms and protect them from being
hit by wild waterfowl. But it’s the fact that you are packing them
all in that’s causing their deaths, because you’re selecting for
the virulence that doesn’t have the same impact in the wild. You
have it there [in Europe] and you have it here in Minnesota.
we had the massive H5N2 outbreak here, the veterinary medicine folk
were hiring ecologists to try to figure out how the wild birds are
infecting the poultry. Now they’ve latched on to the notion of
“ecohealth” because they are searching for a means and mechanism
to wash the hands of their patrons’ business model. So something
beautiful and wonderful—the notion of tracking how wild animals and
livestock and human health are integrated—now becomes a way to
avoid the fact that agribusiness’s business model is the source of
the virulence and the outbreaks.
your book you quote Cargill CEO Gregory Page as saying, “Cargill is
engaged in the commercialization of photosynthesis. It is at the root
of what we do.” That pretty much sums up the assumptions of this
system. Everything is a commodity.
Even that which we think would be a source of free energy is now
something to be encapsulated within a paradigm of an economic system
that is making money off of the commons. Page is alluding to the
notion that he can somehow bottle the sun. And that’s what happens
when Cargill grabs land and in essence takes it out from underneath
the feet of subsistence and smallholder farmers. They’ve removed
the right to use free energy for making food out of thin air—with
seeds and some land, the sun does most of the work. And now, all of a
sudden, small farmers aren’t able to do that.
epidemiology is your field. Which means you probably have some ideas
about how we actually could combat
these viruses, if we were willing to do so. In your opinion, what
should we be doing differently, and why aren’t we doing what we
should be doing?
you look at the genetics of influenza or Ebola or HIV, they are
evolutionary machines. They speed through point mutations with
extraordinary speed to the point where—and I describe this in the
book—their evolution violates our notion of cause and effect. HIV
or influenza weekly come up with solutions to vaccines or drugs that
we haven’t even invented yet.
is why any effort going toe-to-toe with influenza, Ebola, or HIV is a
losing battle. I’m not opposed to vaccines or drugs or medicine
more generally, but the notion that you are going to go toe-to-toe
with that kind of evolutionary machine is ridiculous. We don’t have
the capacity to do that. So we have to address the broader
sociological and ecological context and hopefully maneuver our way to
arrive at a détente with many a pathogen. We could maneuver a lot of
pathogens to a place where they couldn’t do as much damage.
we’re going in the other direction! If I wanted to select for a
strain of influenza that would do maximum damage and spread around
the world, I would produce my hog and poultry exactly the way
agribusiness does it. That arises out of the fact that Big Ag
separated out ecology from economy. And that goes deep into the heart
of the Victorian origins of capitalism and the capacity of the
bourgeoisie to manipulate the world, which includes the premise that
as a class they can separate themselves out from the world they seek
get asked all the time if there is a right way to mass produce food,
but the people who ask me don’t want the answer I give.
Immediately, we could institute three practical changes that would
maneuver dangerous disease out of poultry and livestock:
agriculture is about piling in 15,000 birds together, that’s going
to select for greater virulence. Well we can’t do that anymore, so
somehow we have to space them out a little bit more across the food
we can’t do genetic monoculture anymore; there have to be different
varieties. And we have to allow them to reproduce on site, to allow
the immune resistance to develop to any circulating pathogen.
Agribusinesses don’t do that now. The birds and hogs can’t
reproduce on site—all the breeding is done offshore and for
morphometric characteristics, not for immune response. We want our
birds that are infected and survive to be able to pass on their
immunological adaptations to the next generation. That’s how nature
works to our benefit.
there! Three immediately practical things! But those are things that
would in essence end the business model of livestock
production—because the whole point of raising them as monoculture
now is to make a shitload of money.
system says it wants solutions in the concrete, but in this case
these can’t be applied unless the broader shifts in our economic
structure are imposed as well. And they must be. As the farmers will
tell us, we’ve reached a boundary condition. We’ve come up to a
point where the economics cannot survive the epidemiology it