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Backyard flocks are victims, not bird flu vectors

Published on 21 April, 2006, Last updated at 03:43 GMT

21st Apr, 2006 - Vermont Agriculture Secretary Steve Kerr has been making the rounds of talk shows and legislative hearings, pushing his plan to require every Vermonter who owns farm animals even one cow, goat, duck, horse or chicken to register their premises with the state. Kerr claims that "premises ID" is a measured step to cope with the threat of infectious diseases, the most immediate of which is avian flu, which poses a serious health hazard not only to poultry but to humans as well.

Kerr claims there is nothing that can be done to prevent avian flu from arriving in Vermont: "It's not a question of 'if' it's coming," Kerr is fond of saying, "but 'when'." So long as authorities know which farms and households have poultry, Kerr claims, they can respond quickly by quarantining and slaughtering when an outbreak occurs. Since large operations are already registered with the state, the primary targets of the plan are households with backyard flocks and small free-range operations that sell meat and eggs to local markets. This is particularly the case since (the theory goes) avian flu is spread by migratory birds: those wild birds and their feces are more likely to come into contact with free-range fowl and backyard flocks than birds in large-scale confined operations.

On the face of it, Kerr's plan sounds reasonable. But a recent report by GRAIN, a respected agricultural research group, makes it clear that the theory on which it is based is completely wrong. After a careful examination of where the virulent H5N1 form of avian flu has appeared, GRAIN concludes that the disease is a product of factory-style farming operations, and is spread primarily through global trade in live animals and feed. If they are right, then Kerr's plan, which targets smallholders consuming their own production or selling locally, is aimed in precisely the wrong direction.

The epicenter of H5N1 outbreaks has been Southeast Asia, where a 'Livestock Revolution' patterned on the Green Revolution of the 1970s has been under way for several decades. Hundreds of huge confined poultry operations factory farms have been built by transnational agribusiness corporations in order to 'modernize' the region's livestock production. A high proportion of these commercial farms are located in Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia and China, where most of the avian flu outbreaks have occurred.

GRAIN argues that avian flu is nothing new: "It has co-existed rather peacefully with wild birds, small-scale poultry farming and live markets for centuries. But the highly-pathogenic strains of bird flu that have appeared over the past ten years are unprecedented," and would not have evolved without the conditions present in factory farms, where hundreds of thousands of closely confined birds provide an ideal medium for rapid spread and mutation of the virus. What's more, the escalating global trade in chicks and commercial poultry feed have enabled the disease to spread beyond the confines of those industrial operations. Industrial poultry feeds, for example, often contain "poultry litter" a polite term for whatever is found on the floor of factory farms, including bird feces. The World Health Organization estimates that the H5N1 virus can survive up to 35 days in poultry feces.

As for the theory that migratory fowl are the primary vector of the virus' spread, GRAIN quotes an expert from the organization BirdLife, who points out that there is simply no correlation between the spread of the disease and migratory routes: "When plotted, the pattern of outbreaks follows major road and rail routes, not flyways. And the absence of outbreaks in Africa, South and Southeast Asia and Australasia this autumn is hard to explain, if wild birds are the primary carriers."

Even more telling is the case of Laos. Unlike its neighbors, China, Thailand and Vietnam, Laos has not yet joined the 'Livestock Revolution', and has only a few factory farms, all of them concentrated near urban centers on the Thai border. But Laos does have huge numbers of backyard flocks, spread all across the country. According to the USDA, a typical village in Laos has around 350 chickens, ducks, turkeys and quail (and smaller numbers of geese and other birds) raised in small flocks interspersed among village homes: in other words, the ideal breeding ground for avian flu if the "backyard flock and migratory fowl" theory is correct. But Laos has experienced hardly any outbreaks, and those have occurred only near their few factory-style poultry operations.

"The principal reason why Laos has not suffered widespread bird flu outbreaks like its neighbors", GRAIN concludes, "is that there is almost no contact between its small-scale poultry farms, which produce nearly all of the domestic poultry supply, and its commercial operations, which are integrated with foreign poultry companies."

Secretary Kerr is right in wanting to protect animal and human health from the threat of avian flu. This is why he should immediately ban factory-style poultry operations in Vermont. He should also take active steps to promote a stronger local food system for the state, thereby minimizing the need for cross-border shipments of animals and feed, which are now among the primary vectors for disease transmission. As GRAIN puts it, small free-range flocks are victims, not vectors. By targeting small producers selling locally, Kerr threatens to eliminate the best perhaps the only solution to a very serious problem.

By Steve Gorelick


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