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HEALTH: Report Blames Factory Farms for Bird Flu

Stephen Leahy

BROOKLIN, Canada, Feb 20 2007 (IPS) - Factory farms are responsible for both the bird flu and emissions of greenhouse gases that now top those of cars and sport utility vehicles (SUVs), according to a report released Monday.

Sixty percent of global livestock production, including chicken and pig “confined animal feedlot operations” (CAFOs), now occur in the developing world. Unregulated zoning and subsidies that encourage these CAFOs or factory farms are moving closer to major urban areas in China, Bangladesh, India, and many countries in Africa, said the report, “Vital Signs 2007-2008” by the Worldwatch Institute.

Although there is no definitive scientific proof, those farms are very likely where avian or bird flu started and will continue to be responsible for new outbreaks, said the author of the report, Danielle Nierenberg, a Worldwatch research associate.

In Laos, 42 of the 45 outbreaks of avian flu in the spring of 2004 occurred on factory farms, and 38 were in the capital, Vientiane. In Nigeria, the first cases of avian flu were found in an industrial broiler operation. It spread from that 46,000-bird farm to 30 other factory farms, then quickly to neighbouring backyard flocks, forcing already poor farmers to kill their chickens, Nierenberg writes in the report.

“The growth in factory farms in the developing world is being driven by the fact that there are more people in cities and they have more money to buy meat,” she told IPS in an interview.

Rising incomes, populations and demand for meat has resulted in the global poultry population quadrupling since the 1960s to about 18 billion birds today. Once mostly raised under free-range conditions or in backyards by very small producers, most poultry are now kept in large flocks numbering several hundred thousand.

Cramming 100,000 chickens into a single facility to produce low-cost meat also creates the perfect atmosphere for the spread of disease. For that very reason intensive livestock production systems in Europe and North America feed large volumes of antibiotics to chickens, pigs and cows to control diseases. This widespread use of antibiotics has created bacteria that are now resistant to antibiotics and pose yet another human health threat.

Avian flu is a virus, but one that has long been present in wild and domestic birds and is normally harmless to humans. In 2003, a deadly strain called H5N1 evolved, and has now killed 167 people, according to the World Health Organisation.

Last month, England experienced its first outbreak of H5N1 at a huge turkey farm with 160,000 birds and a meat processing facility. Infected turkey meat believed to have been shipped in from the company’s factory farms in Hungary is thought to be the original source of the disease, according to British officials.

On Monday, Russian health officials confirmed an H5N1 strain outbreak in five different regions around Moscow. Officials there blamed migrating wild birds even though it is the middle of winter in Russia. Russia’s Novosti news agency said scientists traced the source of the virus to a pet market in Moscow.

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) in Rome and the WHO have also blamed wild birds and backyard flocks for the spread of the virus. As a result, at least 15 nations have restricted or banned free-range and backyard production of birds.

But that may do more harm than good, said Nierenberg.

“Many of the world’s estimated 800 million urban farmers, who raise crops and animals for food, transportation, and income in back yards and on rooftops, have been targeted unfairly,” she said in a statement. “The socioeconomic importance of livestock to the world’s poor cannot be overstated.”

There is mounting evidence that there are other vectors of the disease. No wild birds have been detected with the virus in Europe or Africa this winter, yet there have been outbreaks in Nigeria, Egypt and Europe. Illegal and improper trade in poultry is thought to be the reason for these outbreaks.

“Our research shows that the global poultry trade and migratory birds are involved in the spread of H5N1,” said Peter Daszak, executive director of the Consortium for Conservation Medicine in New York and an expert on the spread of disease in wildlife.

The combination of large numbers of birds being raised together, the international trade in poultry and migratory birds are a perfect receipt for the global spread of disease, Daszak said in an interview.

However, there is a “bit of blame game going on” as some cite factory farms and others migratory birds as the source of H5N1.

“New diseases are one of the costs of development and growth,” he said.

Daszak and colleagues have documented the rise of various diseases such as Ebola, BSE, CJD, HIV/AIDS, and H5N1 bird flu, and believe they are the result of environmental change, which is almost always caused by humans. Because humans share so many pathogens with animals, humans’ impact in driving wildlife diseases in turn threatens public health.

“Many of us at the outset underestimated the role of trade,” Samuel Jutzi, director of Animal Production and Health at the FAO, told the International Herald Tribune last week.

“The poultry sector is the most globalised in agriculture,” Jutzi said. “There is incredible movement of chicks and other products.”

The pathogenic H5N1 form of avian flu does not usually develop in wild birds or backyard poultry because their populations are too spread out and diverse, said Cathy Holtslander, project organiser for the Beyond Factory Farming Coalition, a Canadian NGO.

Concentrating huge numbers of animals in small spaces, feeding them the cheapest food possible, centralising and speeding up processing, and distributing the product widely around the world is the perfect recipe for spreading disease, Holtslander told IPS.

The growing numbers of livestock around the world are responsible for 18 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions (as measured in carbon dioxide equivalent), according to the FAO. It’s not just methane and manure – the FAO shows that land-use changes, especially deforestation to expand pastures and to create arable land for feed crops, is a big part. So is the use of energy to produce fertilisers, to run the slaughterhouses and meat-processing plants, and to pump water.

Already surpassing emissions from the world’s transportation sector, livestock numbers are rising fast.

“The world’s poor probably need more meat, but we in North America and Europe should eat a lot less meat,” said Nierenberg.

And it would be better and healthier to get meat from small-scale, localised production systems. Factory farms provide cheap meat only because the real costs in terms of air and water pollution, terrible conditions for workers and animals and so on are not factored in, she said.

“The U.S. infrastructure can barely handle the problems caused by factory farms,” Nierenberg said. “I don’t know how they can address these in the developing world.”

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