The dark side

The ancient ancestor of ours who discovered it was possible to cultivate food rather than hunt for it started a process..

The ancient ancestor of ours who discovered it was possible to cultivate food rather than hunt for it started a process of ineluctable and monumental change that continues to determine our future –  and may well determine whether we survive as a species.

Bioarchaelologists have discovered that not long after our forebears embarked upon an agricultural course they began suffering irritating maladies that had not been nearly as prevalent, or evident at all, in their hunting and gathering ancestors. Agriculture allowed the species to hang around one place for long periods and have more offspring, a luxury that packs of hunter gatherers  couldn’t afford. Having larger families goes hand in glove with working the land and increasing the amount of land to be worked, so being fruitful and multiplying like crazy became a virtue for those early farmers. This was the Genesis of overpopulation, the greatest and most intractable problem facing us in the 21st Century.

This was only one of the many unsavoury aspects on the dark side of the huge technological change we call agriculture. Having the ability to stay and grow, nascent agriculturists began mucking about with animals. The dark side of that undertaking became evident when diseases to which domesticated animals were more vulnerable leapt the species barrier and infected humans. People began dying like flies as plagues like tuberculosis, small pox, and swine flu (to name only a few) swept through the human population. Ultimately even the ravages of these diseases proved no match for the human ability to procreate with the result that the species survived and, on the whole, thrived – or at least a significant portion of them did.

Emissaries from that subset of Homo Sapiens, set off in quest of gold, landed in the land we ironically call South America and were soundly thrashed and repulsed by the army of the mightiest and most sophisticated empire on the planet. So overpowering was their greed, these so-called Conquistadors returned years later, living up to their name only because the invisible plagues they carried on their first assault had ravaged the unexposed and unprotected indigenees of what we now call North and South America, causing what was probably the largest genocide in human history.

Even when viruses don’t leap the species barrier and land in our laps, they are a major problem. The cultivation of large quantaties of one animal makes those creatures particularly vulnerable to disease and this in turn necessitates the use of pesticides, fungicides, and the overuse of antibiotics greatly diminishing the quality of the food, and in some cases rendering its consumption questionable.

Aquaculture is the latest branch of agriculture. Like all other forms of the endeavour, it too has a dark sidebar. This was underscored late in 1984 when a new disease was observed in farmed salmon along the southwest coast of Norway. The disease was dubbed infectious salmon anemia, ISA for short.

Unlike mammals, the red blood cells of fish have DNA, and can become infected with viruses. The fish’ gills grow pale. They swim close to the water surface, gulping for air. However, ISA can also develop without the fish showing any external signs of illness. The fish maintain a normal appetite then suddenly die.

In the summer of 1996 ISA appeared in Atlantic salmon farms in New Brunswick. Norwegian and Canadian scientists conclusively demonstrated that the virus was responsible for the outbreaks in Norway and Canada were identical.

Two years later, a salmon farm in Loch Nevis, on the west coast of Scotland had an ISA outbreak. By the end of the year 15 more Scottish farms were infected. In 1990 the virus hit Chilean fish farms. This outbreak has not yet been completely brought under control and has been responsible for an important decline in the industry, and the closure of many farms and high unemployment.

Now ISA has been found in wild BC salmon. US fisheries authorities in Alaska and Washington are really concerned that their salmon runs will be affected and that Fisheries and Oceans Canada has covered up the problem, a contention that seems to have considerable merit given the curious shenanigans surrounding this issue at the Cohen Commission hearings recently.

Given what we know of viruses in agriculture, we must demand that there be a comprehensive inquiry into the all the monitoring, testing, and disease prevention conducted on BC salmon farms since their inception.