In late 2018, I traveled to Guangzhou, a city of more than 13 million people in southern China, as an emerging pathogen was sweeping across the country. African Swine Fever (ASF), a disease with a nearly 100 percent fatality rate in pigs, had set China on guard. The disease threatened a hallmark of contemporary urban Chinese life: the reliable availability of cheap pork. While ASF had been detected in countries like Russia and Belgium, 2018 was the first time it had appeared in China, the world’s top pork producer. The disease spread quickly throughout the country. Pigs were preemptively slaughtered. Factory farms and international borders stepped up biosecurity levels, a response that reflected a decades-long project of optimizing ecology in the pursuit of modernity.
It’s a project I had become very familiar with as I researched how artificial intelligence had been used to scale up pork farming, creating China’s “pork miracle”: the ability to meet the domestic demand of 54 million tons of pork per year. This growth in output has gone hand in hand with the emerging globalized economy, brokered by the World Trade Organization. The WTO’s promises of economic development via free trade hinged on industrialized agriculture, especially in areas of the world where smallholder farming was still the default. The result was new alliances of cross-border agricultural trade and economic development—and an influx of species and pathogens newly carried across the globe. The concept of biosecurity—a set of standardized practices to prevent the spread of disease between animals and humans—was manufactured in the 1990s to address this sudden surge.
Even before ASF took hold, I was asked to adhere to strict protocols in order to visit factory farms in China. One farm outside Guangzhou had agreed to a visit if I quarantined myself for four days in a nearby hotel beforehand; took a series of steps to disinfect myself; and then did another four days of self-quarantine afterward. Such human quarantine procedures in the name of hog biosecurity are commonplace in factory farming. In industrial hog operations, where a single breed is used and animals are in close, indoor quarters, a virus can quickly tear through a farm. In the face of ASF, my invitation was rescinded entirely, as the farm reconsidered allowing a traveling American researcher, a carrier of unknown multitudes of diseases, to casually visit. The experience was an eerie foreshadowing of the much larger crisis that would soon unfold.
The more I learned about the dizzying web of international trade agreements, foreign-policy decisions based on agricultural trade, investments, technological change, and ecological devastation wrought by multinational agribusiness over the past two decades, the more surprised I was that a global pandemic hadn’t happened sooner. Global free trade of agricultural commodities is set up to encourage industrialization of farming. The ecological and human health consequences of factory farming are dire, especially in terms of the incubation of emerging pathogens, as epidemiologist Rob Wallace documents in his book Big Farms Make Big Flu. Such entanglements are intentionally obfuscated, barely glimpsed through the tiny variations in meat prices at the supermarket. Opacity is enforced for reasons of biosecurity or, in the US, “ag-gag” laws. This restricts political action, relegating regulation to a tightly controlled corner where politics and corporate interests intersect, while jeopardizing the transparency needed to guide actual security in the first place.
In December 2019, a year after my trip to Guangzhou, I started to hear about the appearance of a novel, pneumonialike virus coming out of a Wuhan wet market. I was not surprised. But my experience researching industrial agriculture has led me to be very concerned about the global response to the crisis. As COVID-19 continues to unfold, it is rendered as a bounded problem, understood at the level of the city or the nation-state. Yet the need to think beyond boundaries and across scales—beyond the dichotomies of human versus nature, urban versus rural, individual versus collective—is more urgent than ever. Biosecurity thrives on boundaries. It needs the delineations of the nation-state to exist: the nation-state as a regulator of trade, standards, and disease barriers and quarantine procedures against alien viruses and pests. In a biosecure context, security is maintained through standardization, surveillance, and efficiency, all with the goal of allowing capital to continue to flow. It is a kind of security that disregards actual life.
Even as I write this text, factory farming is heralded as the necessary and only way to ensure global food security in a postpandemic world, exemplifying the kind of reactive security that fails to sustain life. Thinking beyond boundaries allows us to trouble and denaturalize biosecurity, a relatively new concept that is becoming increasingly central to all species, shifting and brokering new relationships among finance, technology, and governments. It allows us to imagine new forms of security, beyond those in the service of global capitalism, that emphasize working at the scale of the neighborhood rather than the nation-state.
The origins of COVID-19 are decidedly rural, intertwined with a landscape of multinational agribusiness, industrial agriculture, and a pursuit of modernization beyond China alone. The aftermath of the Green Revolution brought “modern” agriculture to many parts of the world, replacing long-standing methods of smallholder farming with techniques pioneered by a “good aggressive bunch of American agronomists and plant breeders.” Parallel to the Green Revolution, China also sought to modernize its agricultural systems, shifting from a patchwork of peasants who farmed small plots of land to a nation with an agricultural output to match those of its Western rivals.
The advent of neoliberal economic reform led by Deng Xiaoping paved the way for China’s eventual accession to the WTO, in 2001. The organization’s free-trade agreements required China to make big changes in agricultural practice and policy. The agreements encouraged the widespread use of pesticides and machinery, along with the consolidation of land and labor. They also radically shifted the scale of agriculture; millions of tons of soybeans shipped from Brazil could bypass China’s cities and urban centers, instead feeding the country’s pigs directly. While these changes had deep sociopolitical and ecological consequences, the moves toward modernization allowed China to attain a level of agricultural efficiency that could address its growing agricultural-trade deficit in a world of free trade. But when the 2005 WTO summit convened in Hong Kong, thousands gathered, forming a transnational coalition to protest how free trade agreements devastated small farmers.
As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, biosecurity measures have moved from rural farms to our everyday urban lives.
The practices of factory farming are especially conducive to proliferating zoonotic pathogens. Zoonotic diseases like COVID-19 are the result of pathogens moving from one species to another—from birds into humans, pigs into humans. Emergent pathogens have long existed, but our contemporary global economy allows zoonotic diseases to quickly transform from isolated cases in remote regions to full-blown pandemics.
Epidemiologist Rob Wallace has long been sounding the alarm not only about how industrialized agriculture plays a central role in increasing zoonotic disease transfer into humans but also about how “it pays to produce a pathogen that could kill a billion people.” Wallace points to the way that spatial conditions allowed the H5N1 avian flu to diffuse rapidly: he describes an early WHO bulletin from 1982 that outlines the proximity of human habitation to mass duck production, which uses numerous ponds that facilitate oral-fecal disease transmission. In a liberalized economy, Wallace insists, these conditions only intensified in southern China. One 2014 paper on zoonotic disease states that 60 percent of all emerging illnesses are now zoonotic, and 80 percent of new pathogens come from the world’s top pork-producing countries—places like China.
It’s not just the internal industry practices of animal farming that accelerate zoonotic disease transfer but also the land use changes that accompany “modern” agriculture. Mechanization requires less manual labor and larger swathes of consolidated land, prompting rural-to-urban migration of former farmers as they seek new jobs in the city. Farming a few pigs is a rustic affair, but at factory scale, the environmental consequences are overwhelming. Factory farming and the industries that support it, such as mining and logging, cause enormous habitat and biodiversity loss and increase the likelihood of zoonotic diseases crossing over to humans by putting novel disease carriers like bats in closer contact with humans and domesticated animals. In a country like China that has experienced enormous economic growth by becoming “the world’s factory,” the neoliberal urbanization project has allowed once-remote areas to be absorbed into city sprawl, reminding us that the question of urban life after COVID-19 is a question of rural life as well.
Visiting the headquarters of Alibaba Cloud was much easier than trying to visit an industrial hog farm. Alibaba, the Chinese tech giant with a market valuation of approximately $420 billion, is enormously similar to Amazon. Like Amazon, it has a cloud-computing business that not only rents out spare server time, powering the internet, but additionally rents out technological innovations it has created in-house for its shopping and logistics empire. At the Alibaba Museum, in Hangzhou, the small exhibition hall boasts about the measures Alibaba Cloud is taking to make modern life better and more comfortable.
Alibaba’s ET City Brain project promises security and safety from not just “crime” but also traffic accidents and vehicle collisions with pedestrians. Its ET Agriculture Brain project promises food security for the world through precision farming and the increased use of biosecurity on industrial animal farms. Along the walls of the museum, security is the ideology that is guaranteed and promised, enabled by artificial intelligence and a network of sensors. Alibaba is unabashed about its ambitions, for the Smart City and the Smart Farm mean a world of surveillance.
All forms of security rely on ideas of containment and the creation of territory, whether through surveillance, patrol, or state-inflicted terror. Biosecurity is no exception, ever present in the containment of a farm, lab, hospital, or hotel room. The movement toward total security is accompanied by technological innovation: facial recognition, closed-circuit television cameras, machine learning, and other technologies designed to recognize “anomalies.”
This is evident in modern pig farming, which has more in common with silicon-chip manufacturing than with the agriculture of yore. Even before ASF, factory farms enforced biosecurity protocols such as having workers wear masks and change shoes when entering and exiting hog-confinement areas, designed to minimize disease exchange between pigs as well as between pigs and humans. They deployed closed-circuit television to monitor pigs for signs of disease. Alibaba’s AI-pig-farming project took advantage of camera infrastructure that was already present in China’s factory farms. AI is just helping optimize what human workers have long been doing: watching pigs and conducting temperature and health checks. The level of efficiency AI offers will purportedly allow pork production not only to scale up but also to become more secure, ensuring tighter regimes of biosecurity.
As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, biosecurity measures have moved from rural farms to our everyday urban lives. Like those used on China’s industrialized pig farms, these security measures are fueled by tech capital. Essential workers returning to their jobs may be given frequent COVID tests provided by the private company Everlywell, in partnership with the cloud-computing company Appian. Alphabet (formerly Google), through one of its companies, is providing free testing throughout the San Francisco Bay Area and elsewhere that encourages patients to register with their Google accounts. Palantir is working with the US government to implement COVID case tracking with data sent directly to the company, bypassing the Department of Health and Human Services.
On the other side of the Pacific, Ant Financial, Alibaba’s sister company, has a product called Alipay that issues QR codes to individual users to be scanned at various health checks such as subway entrances and markets throughout Chinese cities. On the hardware end, temperature-check cameras manufactured in China are placed in Amazon warehouses to monitor employees. Facial-recognition temperature scanners have also been sold to building-management firms throughout New York City. Under a regime of biosecurity, living beings are flattened into momentary vectors of capital or disease. Containment of all kinds becomes the goal. These new frontiers in biosecurity are accompanied by a cultural pendulum that swings from normalcy to alarm alongside the constant search for an elusive sense of security in our ever-uncertain world.
But if biosecurity is an ideology, a practice, and an economy that makes the nation-state secondary to the forces of tech capital and technology, its recent appearance is testament to its own fragility. The fact that biosecurity needs to exist is a reminder that the project to contain and control the unpredictability of living beings is ultimately futile. There are numerous ways to intervene in these hulking systems of capital that would like us to believe there is no outside.
A few hours outside of Guangzhou, I finally did get to see some farm animals. A small rice-farming village that I visited was in the process of undoing a “bold, new” experiment it had previously embarked on. For years, the local agricultural bureau (part of the government) had worked with the area’s farmers to implement pesticides, fertilizers, and farm machinery. Under these modern protocols, one of the older farmers in the village started to notice a decline in the quality of soil.
The villagers decided to restructure their approach to farming, remixing and combining old techniques with new ways. Rice paddies are traditionally mountain terraced, using a form of natural irrigation that allows water to flow from top to bottom. The village changed its governance structure so that stewardship of each rice paddy would change every so often, via a lottery system. This meant that each farmer would have noncontiguous paddies. If one person decided to spray pesticides or dam water, they would affect a lower paddy that could belong to them or their neighbor. Alongside this form of community governance was the implementation of natural forms of pest control, organic farming practices, and an ecosystems-based approach to agriculture that emphasized biodiversity. The villages sold their surplus rice online, leveraging new technologies like China’s robust mobile-payment system and speedy courier infrastructure. It is exactly this kind of approach—without boundaries, without ambitions to scale—that reminds us that life outside is possible. It is possible, for instance, that a small village in contemporary authoritarian China might define a governance structure for itself.
Life outside may not always be grandiose, visible, or permanent, but as the constant failed attempts at biosecurity show, nothing is steady or stable. As COVID-19 continues, from afar I get glimpses of the village on social media—while my life in the city has been suspended, they continue to plant rice, raise chickens, and make rice wine. Life outside requires a focus on mutual care; a vocabulary of tending to the future that we increasingly hear calls for; a kind of thoughtfulness that asks us to attend to the present moment and the communities we are accountable to. Life outside requires us, as urban dwellers, to think outside, too—outside ourselves and our cities. To think of life outside, beyond containment, is an experiment in imagining new forms of security beyond the kind shaped by market forces.