David Kelley: Food and wildlife in a globalized economy

Editor’s note: This commentary is by David F. Kelley, who is an attorney and a co-founder of Project Harmony (now PH International) and a former member of the Hazen Union School Board.

After the Easter Uprising in Dublin the poet Yeats wrote that, “All things are changed, changed utterly. A terrible beauty is born.” The poem was called “Easter 1916.” When I first read it I couldn’t understand how anything could be “terrible” and “beautiful” at the same time.  But at Easter in the year 2020 it is understandable. Tragedy produces heroes. In trying times we discover the best in ourselves. And often what we once glimpsed only darkly and distantly, finally comes into focus and the world is seen differently.

The pandemic of 2020 may well be one of those events.  We know who the heroes are. They are the grocers and clerks at Willey’s store, the doctors and nurses at the Hardwick Area Health Center, businesses like Caledonia Spirits that turned on a dime and started making hand sanitizer. And what is coming into clearer focus is how we here in Vermont, and others around the world, need to reconsider our relationship to food and wildlife.

The preponderance of evidence tells us that Covid-19, like SARS, is caused by a coronavirus that jumped from bats to humans (perhaps via pangolins or another kind of animal) at a live animal market in Wuhan, China. In these so-called “wet markets,” “You have a bird pooping on a turtle that poops on a civet,” Dr. Christian Walzer of the Wildlife Conservation Society told The New York Times. “For getting new viruses to emerge, you couldn’t do it much better even if you tried.”

If we are honest, this is not just about China. Consider for a moment how, worldwide, we have changed our relationship to food and wildlife in the last 50 years.  Wildlife trade has become a global market, deforestation in the Amazon, central Africa, and the Mekong has disrupted critical habitat; the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” — 80,000 tons of plastic now lies halfway between California and Hawaii; and there has been an exponential expansion of factory farming in China and in the United States. On top of all of that we now have a human population that travels faster, farther, and more frequently than ever before.

In Greensboro, where we live, and throughout Vermont if we choose to be, we are blessed. Eggs come from a neighbor in East Hardwick. Beef comes from a farm in Glover, and Pete’s Greens is just up the road in Craftsbury. But many depend more and more on food from “concentrated animal feeding operations” that are hotbeds for breeding pathogens, among other things, and heavily reliant on large uses of critical antibiotics. A predictable result will be more outbreaks like the one we face today and like the H1N1 virus that sickened 59 million people in 2008.

Anthony Fauci, now the most famous infectious diseases expert in the world, recently said that the world should pressure China and other nations to close down these wet markets. He said, “It just boggles my mind how, when we have so many diseases that emanate out of that unusual human animal interface, that we don’t just shut it down.” It should be clearer than ever that even that is not enough.   

Kate Jones, chair of Ecology and Biodiversity at University College London writes: “There needs to be a cultural shift from a community level up, about how we treat animals, our understanding of the dangers and biosecurity risks that we’re exposing ourselves to. That means leaving ecosystems intact, not destroying them.”  

As we move forward into this new world, where concern about the source and quality of our food will be greater than ever, the Northeast Kingdom’s Center for an Agricultural Economy and our new emerging agricultural economy is positioned to be at the forefront of that cultural shift that Jones talks about. Less hopeful, but equally important, is developing the kind of leadership in Vermont that will begin to shift the paradigm that has shaped our relationship with wildlife for the last two centuries.  We need to finally begin to recognize that wildlife is not just a resource to be exploited and managed, but a full partner in a better world.


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