Sunday, February 06, 2005

Bird flu and bird farms, part II

In a previous post I presented the perspective of an anthropologist on the current outbreak of avian influenza (bird flu) now sweeping through southeast asia. Ronald Nigh has now given me permission to identify him and has sent me an additional contribution to the debate, which I will post in installments. Dr. Nigh studies the effects of agrobusiness on rural peoples, economies and health.

Previously I had noted a Washington Post article that seemed to confirm many of his points and quoted at length from it. He begins his new piece with a critique of the Post article from his perspective:
The article tells the story of a farmer, Prathum Buaklee, who has been "part of an agrarian revolution in Southeast Asia". From a family of generations of poor rice farmers, he became a prosperous chicken grower on what appears to be his "family farm". Until bird flu stuck and wiped him out. But then we learn that Prathum had grown his chicken operation from 300 to 15,000 birds since 1991! Not exactly a typical backyard poultry‚ operation, even by Asian standards. And of course it wasn't really avian flu that killed his chickens but rather the government order to cull his flock by burying them live in a hole on his farm.

Prathum has now restocked his farm, but apart from the legally required netting over his sheds to keep out wild birds, Prathum is one of those stubborn farmers "resistant to change" and has adopted none of the other sanitary measures recommended by officials, such as "to require that workers disinfect their shoes, change clothing and spray their vehicles before entering a poultry farm, ban outsiders from chicken sheds, keep other animals away and keep egg trays and cages clean." His farm is an example of the "time bomb‚ ready to go off" and apparently Prathum will be to blame when H5N1 goes ballistic and becomes a world epidemic possibly killing millions of humans.

This article is so confused and misleading it is really little wonder that people have yet to understand what is happening. We learn that the mass culling has been ineffective in controlling the virus but somehow we are to believe that cleaning workers shoes and other measures would be effective.

"U.N. and other agriculture experts say the cost of adopting simple safeguards is low but requires a change in attitude, as happened in the United States and Europe, when they went through their own chicken revolutions nearly four decades ago." The implication of this and other articles is that Asians are suffering this problem because they have been "resistant" to adopt modern American-style poultry confinement. "Wet markets", "backyard poultry", "fish ponds" and "mixed livestock" are referred to with disapproval

It's certainly a relief to know that our American farmers are not so stubborn and that they have already "adopted the proper measures" and there is nothing to worry about.

Or is there?

The story I have been putting together is quite different. It is a complex story, with many pieces still missing. What is emerging, though, is that the rapid development of the confined poultry industry and associated technological changes and export trade has resulted in the appearance and rapid propagation of new, highly virulent strains of poultry diseases, some of which affect humans. These new strains not only represent a major threat to the future of poultry production but have resulted in serious potential threats to human health with very high costs for society. The solution to this problem is not more of the same, i.e. more high tech solutions, drugs, "biosecurity" and "best practices" applied to confined poultry operations, but rather to reverse the trend, back up from this dead end, abandon large chicken confinements and return to decentralized production in small flocks widely distributed in the countryside. This also implies that long-distance, "global" trade in poultry products would be largely abandoned.

To be continued. [Links to previous bird flu posts in sidebar to left]

Update (2/6/05, 11 am EST):
Another 16 bird flu outbreaks reported (Voice of Vietnam News)

The Veterinary Department at the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development (MARD) said another 16 bird flu outbreaks were reported on Friday.

The outbreaks were discovered at 13 communes in the four provinces of Long An, Ben Tre, Bac Lieu and Hai Duong.

Local people have culled or destroyed 880 chickens, 6,240 ducks and 33,447 quails.

Bird flu preventive methods have been effectively applied in some provinces to contain the spread of the disease. In 32 communes in the 12 districts of Long An province, there has been no bird flu recurrence reported in recent weeks.

The Veterinary Department has asked localities and relevant agencies to boost measures to monitor and control poultry transport, slaughtering and trading during pre-Tet holidays.