Tuesday, February 08, 2005

Bird flu and bird farms, part IV

This is the final part of anthropologist Ronald Nigh's perspective on the avian influenza (bird flu) outbreak sweeping southeast asia. Dr. Nigh's interests are in effects of agrobusiness on the well-being of rural populations. Previous posts are here, here and here. One of FAO's recommendations to control the disease is the use of vaccines on poultry farms. Dr. Nigh comments:
Improper use of vaccines have been implicated as a possible cause of the rapid spread of H5N1 when it first appeared in China (see previous post). Variant strains are the product of the way we grow poultry today, in big " chicken factories ", with birds immobile, with lots of drugs and low biodiversity. We create the ideal conditions for the arising of mutations and their immediate wide propagation. A revealing article in the magazine World Poultry puts it this way:
"Despite ongoing research by universities and biologics manufacturers and the efforts of regulatory agencies, the world‚s poultry industries continue to be impacted by both catastrophic and erosive infections. During the current year [2003] either velogenic Newcastle disease or highly-pathogenic avian influenza has caused extensive losses in the USA, the Netherlands, Italy and Southeast China. Intensification of the poultry industry to achieve enhanced efficiency [!] has resulted in high concentrations of broiler and egg-producing flocks creating the emergence of variant pathogens and enhanced dissemination of viral and bacterial diseases. Reduction in the intensity of vaccination and a decline in the standards of bio-security [!], in an attempt to reduce costs in competitive markets have also contributed to the frequency and severity of disease outbreaks.

"Relatively mild infections including coccidiosis, E. coli septicemia, laryngotracheitis, mycoplasmosis and infectious bursal disease continue to reduce growth rate, livability and feed conversion efficiency in affected flocks. Emergence of variant strains of both infectious bursal disease and avian bronchitis viruses add to the problems of selecting appropriate vaccines and programs for administration. It is evident that a high concentration of poultry in close proximity allows dissemination of variants. Within three years of the emergence of the Delaware variants of IBDV, virtually the entire industry east of the Mississippi was affected with these strains. There was evidence that the Delaware IBD viruses are now the predominant serotypes in Central America, requiring adjustment of both parent and broiler vaccination programs.

"The emergence of variants of existing pathogens and changes in the epidemiology and clinical presentation of poultry disease will continue as a result of intensification, the more extensive use of live attenuated vaccines and an increase in the movement of live birds within national boundaries and in export trade."
One has to ask exactly what is the nature of the "efficiency " supposedly gained in large chicken confinements. It is simply not true that we need to produce this way to feed everyone. There are alternatives, any of a number of ways of decentralizing poultry production in the hands of small producers, achieving better quality while producing enough for everyone. The only demand such a production system could perhaps not meet is that of the agro-food industry for cheap chicken parts to make processed packaged food. However, if you evaluate the contribution of industrial packaged food and TV dinners to the alleviation of world hunger (not to mention their effect on health), their disappearance might not be an unmitigated disaster.

The only efficiency gained by the current production method is efficiency in concentrating market control and profits in the hands of a few corporation. The poultry industry is currently highly consolidated, with only 4 corporations controlling over 50% of the broiler marker. The big producers have now created disease problems that will cost society billions of dollars to deal with, apart from the death and human suffering that could result. Governments are expected to "be prepared" to deal with these problems, yet the corporations who have profited from their creation have lobbied to lower corporate taxes to the point that they hardly share any of the cost burden themselves. Just profit.

A decentralized poultry system could supply our need for poultry products and provide these in a healthier form. Many small producers are already providing organic and free range poultry products in every city in the country. What we need to do that we are not doing is support small poultry producers with research, extension and other programs, instead of subsidizing fast food and big factory farms.
We consider Dr. Nigh's views a significant contribution to a debate that should happen.

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