Dr Leon Bennun, Director of Science, Policy and Information for BirdLife International, on BBC website – Reality takes wing over bird flu – includes:
Fuelled in part by alarmist press reports and by the attempts of government agencies to draw blame away from farming, there are now calls for drastic measures against wild bird populations.
I believe these measures would put some species at risk of extinction, without having any effect on the spread of avian flu.
If wild birds had been spreading the disease across continents there would have been trails of outbreaks following migration routes; but this hasn’t happened.
The “wild bird” theory for the spread of H5N1 also provides no explanation as to why certain countries on flight paths of birds from Asia remain flu-free, whilst their neighbours suffer repeated infections.
What is striking is that countries like Japan and South Korea, which imposed strict controls on the import and movement of domestic poultry after initial outbreaks, have suffered no further infections. Myanmar has never had an outbreak.
In fact, countries which have not yet developed a large-scale intensive poultry industry have also been largely spared. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) reports that in Laos, 42 out of 45 outbreaks affected intensive poultry units.
Factor in the global nature of the poultry industry, and the international movement of live poultry and poultry products both before and after the Asian outbreaks, and we have the most plausible mechanism for the spread of the virus between places which are not connected by the flyways of migratory birds.
The timing and pattern of outbreaks has been largely inconsistent with wild bird movements; but they have often followed major trade routes.
Some of the agencies attempting to monitor and control avian flu, such as the FAO, seem to have been reluctant to draw attention to the role of intensive agriculture, because of the impact on national economies and on access to cheap sources of protein.
For this and other reasons, the role of migratory wild birds in the transmission of the disease has been exaggerated, and further sensationalised in the press.
In fact, H5N1 outbreaks in wild birds have so far mostly burned themselves out without culls or other human interventions.
Some of the world’s most threatened birds may be put at risk. But there is also the near-certainty of damage to ecosystem services on which people and economies depend.
BirdLife is calling for an independent inquiry into the spread of H5N1 which gives due weight to the role of the global poultry industry, and maps both official and unofficial poultry trade routes against the pattern of outbreaks.
It may also be time to take a long, hard look at the way the world feeds itself, and to decide whether the price paid for modern farming in terms of risks to human health and the Earth’s biodiversity is too high.