Letter from Saskatchewan
FAO issues report calling for new
thinking on avian flu poultry risks

World body says it’s not clear that big confinement operations are safer.

By Paul Beingessner

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Saskatchewan farmer Paul Beingessner covers Canadian agriculture from a High Plains perspective. His straight-talk style informs readers about corporate influence in national and international agriculture, national ag politics on both sides of the border, and why some farmers do the things they do. Click here for more information about Paul.

TRUAX, Saskatchewan, Canada, posted October 18, 2007: It's pretty easy for the average person to get lost in the acronyms around avian influenza, but you can bet chicken farmers know what they mean. Saskatchewan's outbreak of the H7N3 strain of the virus (not to be confused with the H5N1, which is linked to human illness) left a lot of concern in the poultry industry.

Due partly to supply management, Canada is not a big exporter of poultry, so the border closures that accompanied the outbreak were less serious than they might otherwise have been. Measures developed after B.C's outbreak of the H7N3 strain in 2004 left the industry better prepared to deal with this problem.

Nevertheless, there is a great deal of worry around the globe concerning what are called Highly Pathogenic Influenza A viruses. The science around the development and spread of these viruses is evolving continually, but can be coloured by the special interests involved. To understand the debate, a few concepts are needed.

Highly Pathogenic viruses are ones that spread rapidly and are deadly. A large percentage of infected birds will die. There are also Low Pathogenic versions of Influenza A. These occur everywhere in birds, both wild and domestic, but are rarely fatal. Where they are found in tame poultry, it is believed they come mainly from wild birds.

The Low Pathogenic versions are not too significant, since fowl have lived with them for ages. What is important is that this virus, Influenza A, is able to undergo molecular transformation that allows it to adapt to new hosts and potentially cause major disease outbreaks in birds, but also in humans.

Old thinking: factory farms safer

When the H5N1 version appeared in Asia, scientists began to speculate both on its origins, and how it was spread. Readers may remember that the first to be blamed were wild birds and small, backyard chicken flocks. It was thought that the disease came from wild fowl, and easily spread to the chickens scratching around the back yards of rural and urban dwellers in crowded Asian countries.

Large confinement poultry farms, often owned by multinational agribusiness companies, were quick to point the finger there, and demand small flocks, as reservoirs of the disease, be eliminated. After all, how could flocks confined entirely in buildings have come in contact with the disease-carrying wild birds?

This thinking was also promoted by agencies working to promote economic development in poor countries. Organizations like the United Nation's Food and Agriculture Organization have long promoted intensive rearing of animals like hogs and chickens as a way of enhancing the quantity and quality of food available in underdeveloped countries. Thus the idea that small flocks might be a health risk fit nicely into the agendas of a number of players—governments, large agribusiness corporations and agencies like the FAO and the World Bank. Countries were warned to watch for a spread of Avian Influenza when fall bird migrations began in the northern hemisphere.

A number of scientists and ecology groups challenged this whole notion. And new evidence seems to show they were right. Highly Pathogenic viruses do not appear to be common in wild fowl. Sampling of wild bird populations around the world has shown this. It is now believed that the Highly Pathogenic strains of Avian Influenza appear in domestic poultry as a result of molecular changes in existing versions of the Influenza A virus in domestic flocks. In light of this the FAO is doing some re-thinking of its ideas about poultry.

In a report issued last week, the FAO suggested that a worldwide shift to concentrated intensive livestock operations has "potentially serious consequences for local and global disease risks, which, so far, have not been widely recognized."

New thinking: think again

The report pointed to the industrial style of these production units as a potential source of both the development and rapid spread of pathogens. In an about-face from past policies, the FAO stated that "policy makers in both developing and developed countries appear to accept that large-scale industrial farms have higher standards and self-discipline in biosecurity, while smallholders need more rigorous public oversight. But the realities of animal health, economic incentives, and the public interest in disease prevention are far too complex for simple rules of thumb like this to be optimal for society."

This change of heart on the part of the FAO will hopefully accompany a lot of sober second thought about the nature of development. Millions of poor around the world depend on backyard poultry flocks to supply a modest amount of protein and some badly needed cash. In a country like Vietnam, for example, more than half of all households, urban and rural, raise poultry. In isolated rural areas, the figure reaches 90 percent. An average flock in Vietnam consists of about 16 birds (4 hens, 1 cock and 11 growers and chicks). The poorer the family, the greater a contribution to family income the poultry flock makes in Vietnam.

The introduction of intensive poultry rearing in countries like Vietnam usually reduces the value of birds raised by small farmers. Many development agencies have recognized this, but have been unable to overcome the belief that the greater "efficiency" of these operations will provide greater overall benefits.

The idea that these intensive operations may be a major concern in the development and spread of Highly Pathogenic viruses should give all governments some pause to reconsider this form of industrialization.