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Beyond the virus: Food and Planetary Health [by Mirian Fabiane Strate]

Updated: May 18, 2020

Biologist, PhD student in Rural Development - Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul (see profile below)

Ulrich Beck's theory of risk society (1944-2015) is one of the 20th century sociological theories with the greatest impact in several areas of knowledge. It calls into question the linearity of development, presenting the risks and vulnerability to which we are exposed. In addition to ecological threats, there is a growing and massive precariousness of the conditions of existence, with an individualization of social inequality and uncertainty regarding living conditions. According to Beck’s, risk is an intermediate stage between security and destruction, and the perception of threatening risks determines thought and action. The collective feeling in the face of risks is expressed by the statement “I am afraid”, which in the field of food can be summed up in the question “what to eat?”.

In general, development is understood as a good in itself, since it would mean moving towards having more and better. This path is often interpreted as a way in which technical-scientific development leads to socioeconomic development, which, in turn, generates the well-being of society. In this conception, development is the result of knowledge and mastery of the forces of nature.

Food is an activity that involves much more than the act of eating and the availability of food. There is a production chain, which begins in the field - with the change in land use, converting areas of natural landscapes into crops and pastures - in the choice of production system, species and cultivars or in the genetic selection of animals to be created.

The choice of foods that we put on the plate takes on a political character, as the diet can contribute to aggravate the environmental and social crisis, in addition to having direct effects on health. The expansion of commodities, mining and urbanization lead to the loss of biodiversity and the balance between species and the alteration of the biomes that house so many species of animals and plants, where there are so many unknown viruses and microorganisms. We disrupt ecosystems and release viruses from their natural hosts. When this happens, they need a new host, which may be from other species, including us.

The habit of eating meat, over time, made us select animals, reducing their genetic diversity and selecting not only farm animals, but also their pathogens, with the increasing use of antibiotics in modern production systems, in which animals are confined in an environment very different from their natural habitat, their immune system is weakened. From an ecological point of view, meat consumption has a greater impact than a diet with vegetables, as energy is lost along the food chains. In addition, livestock in biomes like the Amazon is responsible for huge areas of deforestation.

Additionally there are the densely packed populations of large urban centers, who live in degrading environments, often in precarious sanitary conditions, without access to drinking water and healthy food, without access to fresh food, free of pesticides; that is, in a condition of food and nutritional insecurity. These are degraded environments with great social vulnerability, which affect human health and are susceptible to diseases and rapid spread of infectious agents.

It is in this scenario that epidemics and pandemics have become frequent. Research suggests that outbreaks of animal-borne diseases and other infectious diseases like Ebola, SARS, Avian Influenza and now COVID-19, caused by a new coronavirus, are increasing. Pathogens are moving from animals to humans, and many can now spread quickly to new places. The United States Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that three quarters of new or emerging diseases that infect humans originate in animals. Changes in land use, contamination of habitats by chemical agents, climate change and increasing environmental degradation all contribute to the risk.

Humanity depends on healthy agro-ecosystems, and these depend on biodiversity, species and genes. Sustainable diets are those that promote life, equitably, generate resilience and favor the sustainability of Mother Earth for future generations. Times of crisis are also times of changes and opportunities, of breaking paradigms. To speak of food production is to deal with the very existence, not only of the individual, but of the possibility of life on the planet. The hegemonic agrifood system focuses on simplifying life, ecosystems, and food.

The imminence of a collapse of planetary dimensions calls this model into question and makes us rethink our practices. New paradigms emerge, it is time to reconnect with food as a dimension of life, comprising all systemic relationships that this vision presents to us. We need to increase the complexity of ecosystems, change food practices by building new arrangements between production and consumption, using social technologies, ancestral knowledge and technological tools that are at the service of life, in line with biological flows.


Writer's Profile

Mirian Fabiane Strate


Master in Rural Development - Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul

PhD student in Rural Development - Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul

Researcher member of the Reference Circle in Agroecology, Sociobiodiversity, Sovereignty and Food and Nutritional Security (ASSSAN - UFRGS)

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4 comentarios

Allison Loconto
Allison Loconto
16 abr 2020

Very inspiring blog post! I think that Angga's point is well taken, the risk of 'catching' a global pandemic is felt more than the risk of 'catching' effects of climate change - particularly for urban residents, who are those who seem to be the most affected. I think the temporal element if fundamental here. What makes the virus risk felt is the speed of spread and death (3-30 days). The climate crisis is discussed in the media in terms of decades and centuries. Perhaps the more connections that are beginning to be made between climate change and global pandemics may actually help in rendering the 'risk' more 'real' for people, however unevenly these risks are allocated. I think one of…

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Mirian Strate
Mirian Strate
10 abr 2020

COVID 19 is just a symptom of a collapsing system, which is totally unsustainable in many ways, climate change, water insecurity, loss of biodiversity. I am Brazilian, here we see the Amazon being swallowed up by an agrifood system that produces commodities, so if we look at it, there is a clear relationship between what we put on the plate, the loss of biodiversity and changes in the climate, we live an imminent risk of colapse.

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Miembro desconocido
10 abr 2020

Agree. I think it’s an interesting way of framing Coronavirus and food within Beck’s risk society and reflexive modernity. A question lingers though, as we occassionaly find in the web and social media, in a risk society, why is Covid-19 seen and acted upon differently than climate crisis? Beck mentioned about how risk is no longer seen as the real thing, but through the knowledge and perception of the risk. But with Covid-19, the risk itself is felt. Can it be seen as a turning point for the risk society?

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Thanks, Mirian. Beck, COVID 19, and agrifood are a strong brew. I like how you bring these together in your post.

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