Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Can we fight bird flu by thinking globally and acting locally?

Ashfak Bokhari has written an articulate, to-the-point piece on the corporate roots of the dreaded bird flu in Dawn, Pakistan's English newspaper.
...[It] is the industrialisation of today’s poultry sector which is creating conditions for bird flu to emerge again and again and spread rapidly. The example of Bangladesh is quite illustrative. The country is seen as a success story of the “livestock revolution”, having converted about half of its national poultry production from backyards to intensive and semi-intensive industrial farms. The micro-credit NGO, the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee (BRAC) was instrumental in this transition by financing groups of poor women to set up thousands of mini-factory farms.

In the process the BRAC became a major, vertically integrated poultry corporation, with its own large-scale hatcheries, poultry farms, and feed mills that supply the smaller units...In 2005, the government contracted [BRAC] to monitor “hotspots ” in the country where migratory birds flock, and to convert the country ’s open-house hatcheries into bio-secure closed facilities. But these actions failed to stop the bird flu outbreak of March 2007 which happened at a completely closed poultry farm – one of the country’s largest broiler operations and hatcheries. From there, it spread quickly through the smaller model farms and some other large-scale operations.

But what happened in Laos is a different story. The major reason why the country has not suffered widespread bird flu outbreaks like its neighbours (Hong Kong, Thailand, Vietnam and China are the most affected) 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.

Laos effectively stamped out the disease by closing the border to poultry from Thailand and culling chickens at the commercial operations...[U]nlike in Thailand and Vietnam, small-scale farmers in Laos are not supplied by big companies with day-old chicks or feed and, outside of its capital, poultry is produced and consumed locally. Poultry production is also more spread out in Laos. It is less dense, less integrated and less homogeneous – all of which keeps bird flu from spreading and evolving into more pathogenic forms.

The Laos experience suggests that the key to protecting backyard poultry and people from bird flu is to protect them from industrial poultry and poultry products. ...Traditional farmer knowledge and biodiversity combined with simple bio -security measures appropriate to small farms may be all that is required to manage the disease effectively in most rural communities. [Link]
The article, which you can read in its entirety here, is thought-provoking. However, intensive farming and industrialization of farm production mechanisms were embraced in the last century not only for corporate profits, but also to efficiently produce enough to meet the basic needs of a growing population worldwide. (Whether these needs were met is a different can of worms.)

As a student interning in mega-dairies and doing rounds in vertically integrated poultry farms, I thought of the trend as 'quantity first and foremost.' All practices and developments were data driven. You couldn't argue with production numbers even as you simultaneously learnt about endangered breeds and lack of biodiversity in livestock. I am not even touching upon the issues of public health and hygiene that are to be considered while packaging and transporting milk and meat to consumers concentrated in mega-cities.

Perhaps national objectives, for the most part, were deliberately and necessarily narrow. Perhaps people did not ask all the right questions, and systems did not put a value on differing viewpoints.

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