We need a rethink of Big Poultry to stop avian flu

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When poultry farms get infected with avian flu and slaughter millions of birds, should we really be subsidizing them with considerable compensation, given the science on what’s driving this disease?

Highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) is killing poultry, wild birds and some mammals around the world. Owls, eagles, penguins, bears, porpoises and more have died, as has a pet dog that chewed a dead goose in Oshawa, Ont. A small but unsettling number of humans have died, too. The World Health Organization worries bird flu could transmit among humans and cause a pandemic. Sparked by a virus labelled H5N1, this disease is clearly hitting more than just farmers and consumers of chicken and eggs.

Meanwhile, experts suggest commercial poultry, especially factory-farmed and crowded in barns, is one culprit behind the disease’s rapid spread. But one response by the Canadian government is to compensate farmers — paying the industry millions for bird slaughters — without requiring improved biosecurity against potential pathogens. Perhaps we should question this approach.

Here’s what we ought to know:

Industry officials blame wild birds, but there’s more to it.

Poultry companies point fingers at migrating ducks and geese, which carry avian flu viruses and can shed microbes as they fly overhead. It’s true that wild birds have long carried flu viruses — but mostly in innocuous strains. However, the lethal version of HPAI has arisen primarily among farmed birds. It’s documented in scientific journals that are often overlooked because they’re dense or paywalled.

One study by United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization scientist Madhur Dhingra and her colleagues identified all reported cases over 55 years in which bird flu viruses mutated from low-pathogenic to high-pathogenic, showing that more than 94 per cent were in commercial poultry, mostly in high-income countries. Bird flu experts, like Ron Fouchier, say it has increased with intensive poultry production. Researchers say avian flu is one of the livestock diseases resulting from the exploding worldwide production and trade of farmed animals. The UN’s Scientific Task Force on Avian Influenza and Wild Birds says: “Wild birds are both victims and vectors of a virus originating from within a poultry setting.”

Poultry businesses get money for bird slaughters.

Paying out poultry companies is one response by the Canadian government to HPAI. When Canadian farmers detect infections, they must report them, and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) orders “de-populations” of flocks. Farmers get federal compensation for the market value of the poultry, plus slaughter expenses. The federal payouts have amounted to $202 million across Canada in the past few years, I was told by the CFIA’s media office. However, poultry companies that got money were not required to strengthen biosecurity against potential pathogens. The CFIA works with industry and provinces on biosecurity and disease response, the spokesperson said, “but the payment of compensation is not linked to specific biosecurity measures.”

Maybe a lack of rigorous requirements is one reason some poultry regions have had multiple disease culls — and the multiple compensations that go along with that. CFIA’s website shows regions that have been through this wringer repeatedly. Critics have said taxpayers’ money is funding bird slaughters that are inhumane. I’ll add that we’re egging on a method of food production that scientists say fuels HPAI.

B.C. poultry is a hub for avian flu.

Of 11 million birds slaughtered in Canada in the past few years for avian-flu infections, a full six million — more than half — were in B.C., even though the province produces only 14 per cent of Canadian chicken and 12 per cent of the eggs. Most domestic poultry products come from Ontario and Quebec. Amanda Brittain of the B.C. Poultry Emergency Operations Centre said Metro Vancouver’s Fraser Valley is on migratory flyways, and mild winters draw wild birds to over-winter there. As well, she said, mountainous geography means poultry farms are concentrated in close proximity. While barns on the Prairies might be 10 kilometres apart, she said, “here in the Fraser Valley, within 10 kilometres, we could have 25 farms.”

Density is key — the density of barns and the density of animals inside. Almost all poultry today is raised in factory farms — 75 per cent globally, 99 per cent in the U.S., and most in Canada. It reflects the 800 per cent increase in global poultry meat production in 50 years, and the tens of billions (yes, billions) of farmed birds on the planet at any one time. Chicken is such a go-to meal that poultry now outweighs wild birds by more than 2 to 1. Packed into barns such as those in B.C. that hold 50,000 chickens, the animals are already less resilient than normal. Bred for maximum meat and egg production, they’re less genetically diverse. And though viruses are on the prowl from wild bird habitats nearby, those chickens are not social-distancing!

Solutions: Let’s talk long-term.

Discussion of solutions tends to focus on biosecurity, which is important but doesn’t address the inherent unsustainability of mass-scale poultry production.

Climate is part of this discussion. We already know animal-sourced proteins generate more greenhouse gas emissions and environmental degradation than plant-based proteins. Though many people perceive chicken as less bad for the climate than beef or pork, it’s still worse than plant-based proteins like versatile lentils — of which Canada is a leading producer.

Avian flu is yet more evidence for moving toward smaller-scale agriculture that’s also more plant-based. Those are key ingredients in sustainable agriculture and diets, say major reports on healthy future food. For poultry production, as for other animal agriculture, we could de-intensify, reduce herd sizes and farm densities, and limit the enormous distances farmed animals are transported. Consumers, especially in middle- and high-income countries — where meat consumption is high, yet alternative proteins are plentiful — can eat more plants.

In the view of the avian flu task force, we need to question the very “nature and sustainability” of current poultry systems. Doing so makes sense now that avian flu has become a potential crisis for wildlife conservation, food security and planetary well-being. Perhaps avian flu will motivate us to shift agriculture and diets to ones that are healthy and not disease-prone and work with nature, not against it.

Source: Canada’s National Observer