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Mainstream, Vol XLVI No 11

Bird Flu: Crucial Issues that were Ignored

Saturday 1 March 2008, by Bharat Dogra


The recent outbreak of bird-flu in West Bengal led to the culling of about 29 lakh birds. Before this the outbreak of bird-flue in Navapur, Maharashtra in February 2006 had also led to very large-scale culling of birds. This has raised a serious concern about the threat bird flu poses to the very survival of poultry based livelihoods as well as the ethical, health and environmental issues involved in such large-scale culling concentrated in a few days.

Why is it that poultry birds have become increasingly more susceptible to epidemic diseases in a few years time. The FAO Director Jacques Diouf recently linked the spread of this and some other animal diseases to “the intensification of production systems and to the increase in commercial movement”. More specifically, it is the way in which breeding systems have drastically altered as a part of these changes that has led to a very fast spread of bird and animal epidemics some of which can also emerge as a threat to human beings.

As livestock breeding at the international level has become increasingly dominated by a few giant companies, their concentration on just a few breeds (which are considered commercially more lucrative by them) has meant that the livestock (including poultry bird) populations have become genetically very similar. As Susanne Gura, author of a widely acclaimed study titled ‘Livestock Genetics Companies’, has pointed out, not only was resistance to disease neglected as a trait in the intensive breeding, but also thousands of genetically very similar animals are being raised in close proximity. Further she writes:

While industrial production with the same few breeds is spreading all over the world, local breeds are being lost. It is estimated that, of the 8000 or so breeds documented by FAO, one is becoming extinct every month, compared with the one every year that was lost during the last century. Already 20 per cent of the breeds are at risk.

According to the FAO,
The rapid spread of large-scale industrial livestock production focused on a narrow range of breeds is the biggest threat to the world’s farm animal diversity.

This has led to “the marginalisation of traditional production systems and the associated local breeds”.

GRAIN, a leading international NGO working on genetic diversity, has said in a recent statement:

Livestock breeding and production is increasingly dominated by a handful of transnational corporations that drive local breeds and, indeed, pastoralists and small-scale livestock farmers, into extinction. The same corporations are using the threat of a global pardemic of avian flu to tighten their grip on the industry.

This pattern of livestock (including poultry) development is also bad for food safety and consumers’ health. As the FAO says,
this model of production is based on a dangerous narrow genetic base of the world’s livestock, propped up by the widespread use of veterinary drugs. Yet this risky and high-cost system is providing more and more of our food.

While the threat of diseases has increased due to distorted breeding practices and genetic uniformity, the international coordinated efforts to face this threat have fallen far short of real needs. As GRAIN says,
There is an incredible lack of transparency around the whole scientific research infrastructure dealing with animal diseases and their human health implications.

Secondly, GRAIN argues:

the privatisation of viruses, vaccines and related materials and technologies for commercial purpose (whether state or private) is totally against the public interest.

What is perhaps worst is that this animal health R and D is even being linked to military and biological warfare research.

As effective solutions to this growing risk, researchers like Susanne Gura have emphasised a new approach to sustainable breeding, no patents on animals or on genes and greater role for local breeding. But in reality the greatest emphasis has been placed as culling operations which can be quite cruel.

It is true that leading international organisations like the FAO, WHO and the World Organisation for Animal Health had initially advised killing all birds on farms near an outbreak as an effective means of control. However, this was in 2003-04, at an early stage of the outbreak of avian flu in Asia.

It was subsequently seen that large-scale culling had not always proved effective in checking the disease. So it becomes difficult to justify the killing of so many birds. The FAO and the World Organisation for Animal Health reversed their decision in 2005, saying that “for ethical, ecological and economical reasons”, culling should no longer be used as a primary means of control. On April 11, 2005 the FAO (Rome) issued a press release to this effect. This was followed soon by a report in the prestigious journal Nature—Vaccination will work better than culling - say bird flu experts’ (April 14, 2005).

In a review of this disease and related issues Danielle Nierenberg has written even more recently in a Worldwatch publication,
More than 140 million birds in Asia have been ‘depopulated’ since the outbreak first hit. Unfortunately, gathering birds into plastic bags and in some cases, burying or burning them alive did little to prevent the disease from spreading.

What is more, the condition in which the birds have been culled in India is likely to have exposed many workers to severe hazards.
The threat of avian flu is also being used very shrewdly to further increase the power of a few giant companies in the world poultry industry. In reality it is the system of ‘factory farming’ which creates conducive conditions for the rapid spread of diseases because of the overcrowding and genetic uniformity. Rather than asking for checking this massive-scale ‘factory-farming’ many so-called specialists have used this threat to recommend that small-scale and backyard poultry farms should be discouraged as it is difficult to detect and check the spread of avian flu on these farms in time.

Clearly important changes are needed in the entire approach to facing the growing challenge of livestock epidemics including avian flu.

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