Saturday, February 05, 2005

Bird flu and bird farms

Things must be getting bad with respect to bird flu because today and yesterday there were articles in The LA Times (Charles Piller), The Washington Post (Alan Sipress) and The New York Times (Keith Bradsher).

But first the news from the area (Voice of Vietnam News):
Another 25 bird flu outbreaks reported

The Veterinary Department at the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development (MARD) said another 25 bird flu outbreaks were reported on Thursday.

The outbreaks were discovered at 19 communes in the eight provinces of Long An, Ben Tre, Bac Lieu, Dong Thap, An Giang, Ha Giang, Thai Binh and Hai Duong.

The number of culled poultry amounted to 1,621 chickens and 30,801 ducks.

No more bird flu outbreaks were reported in northern Ha Nam and southern Binh Phuoc provinces from January 9 to February 3.

MARD Deputy Minister Diep Kinh Tan is visiting northern mountainous and midland provinces to check bird flu prevention and control.
Before I go on to discuss two of the newspaper accounts relevant to this (the NYT article was off-topic; I plan to discuss in a subsequent post), I want to credit one of our readers who emailed me. He identifies himself as an anthropologist working in Mexico on "research and community extension issues related to the agrofood system, health and environmental issues." I won't use his name because it was a private email to the Editors and he did not explicitly give permission to do so, but I am grateful for his insights. One of the contributions of the blogosphere is that it brings in rarely heard perspectives that can completely change how we see unfolding events.

So here is what the anthropologist brought to the (more parochial) public health perspective. He asked if we had any "perspective on a rarely discussed aspect of current policies, or lack of them, to deal with this most recent example of our unfortunate relationship with animals." We thought he was referring to the time honored practice of backyard subsistence poultry raising, mentioned in public health accounts of bird flu. But instead he was raising another issue, now implicitly confirmed by the articles in the LA Times and the Washington Post. Here is the main part of his email:
Asia is of course, the center of origin of the chicken and is still a world center of avian diversity. Dozens of varieties are kept by small poultry growers in mostly rustic, free range conditions. Over 60% of poultry in Asia is grown under these conditions. So it has been for many centuries.

During the past couple of decades, some countries, particularly Thailand and Vietnam, among others, have seen a tremendous growth in large chicken confinements, chicken factories of many thousands of birds in the deplorable conditions we are all familiar with. All the ills, antibiotics, hormones, tremendous disease problems, unhealthy products, etc., are present in these factories. These countries have also entered into international commerce of poultry products, including supplying chicks for yet more huge confinement operations. Thailand for example has become a major supplier of frozen chicken parts to England. Of course, biodiversity has been drastically reduced, with millions of chickens in these farms originating in very few breeding populations.

These huge confinement operations, for all their talk of being hygienic and biosecure, are fertile sources for new diseases or for amplifying and modifying old ones, including, I suspect, the H5N1 strain of avian flu. It is in these industrial developments of chicken raising in Asia that we should search for the origins of the new, highly pathogenic strains, as the ideal conditions for their creation are present. If you look at where this particularly dangerous strain of avian flu has been causing the most problems you will find that it corresponds to those countries that, during the last decade or two, have entered significantly into the poultry "industry" and international commerce of poultry products. One major country that has not entered this international market is India (perhaps by mistake rather than intention). In India, poultry production is still in the hands of small growers with their diverse chicken flocks. India has not been affected, so far, by H5N1.

It is sad to see the WHO and FAO scambling to blame the small chicken growers for the H5N1 problem. First, they attacked the "wet markets", where, for thousands of years local people have been buying and selling live chickens and fresh poultry products. Then, FAO convinced the Thai government to attack backyard poultry growers, a majority of rural people, forcing them to adopt confinement and other 'modern' poultry methods. Farmers who put up the costs of implementing these changes are still just as susceptible to avian flu as before. But most small growers will simply be driven out of business. Now Vietnam has launched an attack on ducks, on what seems to me a somewhat vague understanding of their possible role in bird flu transmission.

The implications of these for the future of poultry diversity are grave, not to mention the social and economic impact of deliberately destroying traditional small poultry farmers. It is likely that small poultry growers will pick up and repopulate their flocks after this epidemic has run its course, as they have for thousands of years, if they can. The danger is that they will be resupplied by the relatively impoverished biodiversity of big chicken farms, and perhaps forced to use confinement methods, drugs, etc. The diversity of avian fowl kept by small growers is probably the most important resource we have for future solutions to our current zoonosis problems.

Once big poultry confinements have spawned these diseases, they do of course affect small poultry growers as well. Yet the FAO recommendations, which would result in eliminating the small grower with her diverse chicken flocks, leaving behind only the chicken factories seems perverse and dangerous.

No one seems to have noticed this potential erosion of a priceless genetic resource. Just another case of where sanitary issues are a convenient excuse, deliberate or inadvertant, to eliminate the small producer in favor of commercial agroindusty. How long will it be before it is simply illegal to grow your own food? And what will the implications be for public health?
So what do the newspaper articles have to do with this? The LA Times reports that Vietnamese officials have banned all duck and goose farming, nationwide. What the LA Times article doesn't do is give any idea of the nature and context of this farming. This is where the Washington Post article provides valuable information:
[There is] an agrarian revolution in Southeast Asia and China that has more than doubled poultry production in barely a decade, bringing pickup trucks, air conditioning and other trappings of prosperity to long-destitute peasants and more protein to the diets of hundreds of millions of ordinary Asians.
The Post tells the story through the eyes of Prathum Buaklee, a Thai farmer:
Until 15 years ago, Prathum and other farmers said the area around Banglane was an uninterrupted expanse of glistening emerald rice paddies where villagers traveled in small wooden boats along countless canals. The few roads were dirt tracks navigated by ox cart.

Prathum, whose forefathers had been rice farmers in the wetlands of central Thailand, dropped out of school after fourth grade to follow in the family tradition. The income he earned was "just barely enough to make a living," he recalled.

In the late 1980s, as he continued to toil in the rice fields, Thailand was undergoing far-reaching economic changes. It was becoming a manufacturing center in the globalized market, recording growth rates of nearly 10 percent a year. Rising incomes for many Thais meant greater demand for a better diet, in particular animal protein.

Nowhere was this truer than in Bangkok, the booming capital. Prathum's home province of Suphan Buri, 70 miles to the north, was strategically located to meet this demand for chicken, duck and eggs.

Taking the lead from a neighbor, Prathum started in 1991 with 300 hens and began selling eggs. His flock grew steadily until it reached 15,000. He bought about 20 acres of land, more than tripling the size of his farm, and ultimately erected seven open-sided poultry sheds suspended above artificial ponds, which he stocked with fish to supplement his income. Each shed stretches about 40 yards under a pitched metal roof. Wood planks splattered with droppings run between the cages.

He bought a pair of Ford pickups, replaced his leaky clapboard hovel with a home three times as large and outfitted it with a color television, refrigerator and air conditioning. He gave each of his three children a computer and sent two sons to college, one of whom is studying veterinary science.

"I feel grateful to the chickens," Prathum said. "Chickens are like human beings. You take care of them well and they'll take care of you."
During last winter's outbreak there was a massive culling of birds in Vietnam (see earlier post on the change in culling practices this year), and Prathum's farm was obliterated. He sat idle for nine months, and then decided to restock. The epidemic seemed over.
But Prathum adopted none of the other safeguards that veterinary officials recommended, such as barring visitors and other animals from the farm. He continued to raise fish in the ponds, which attract waterfowl that could spread the virus. Neighboring farmers in filthy work clothes visit with Prathum inside the sheds as he feeds the flock and collects the eggs. Even his black dachshund follows him on his rounds.

In Thailand, Vietnam and Indonesia, the number of chickens nearly tripled from the late 1980s until early last year, according to figures from the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization. China recorded a doubling in its poultry population, adding 2 billion chickens since 1988.

This meant that ordinary citizens across these countries were getting much more protein in their diets, with daily intake of chicken doubling in some places and tripling in others. Consumption of eggs increased nearly as quickly.

The number of ducks, another common source of meat in this part of the world, was also up sharply. In retrospect, that was particularly worrisome because experts believe ducks play a crucial role in spreading the disease among birds, because they remain symptom-free longer and wander more widely than chickens.
It is remarkable how much of this story corroborates our anthropologist's concerns. As we try to cope with this agricultural and potential public health catastrophe starting in southeast asia, there is much to think about and more than one way to think about it.

And past time to be just starting to think about it.