Martin W

    Dear Martin,

    Thank you for sharing the response from Dr Sims. Unfortunately, Dr. Sims was commenting on our press release and not our full report, which may have generated some confusion. I hope that, in the future, contributors to your forum, especially those with expert credentials, take the time to read the report before commenting. Nevertheless, I wish to address some of the points that Dr. Sims made.

    Dr. Sims writes:

    Of particular importance is the fact that much of the disease in smallholder poultry goes undiagnosed. In countries with poorly developed veterinary services it is only when a case occurs in a commercial farm that the problem is diagnosed and brought to the attention of veterinary authorities.

    Dr. Sims appears to be speculating here. To my knowledge, there are no studies that show that much of the disease goes undiagnosed in smallholder poultry. To the contrary, what we have seen in many countries is smallholders coming forward to authorities to ask about the mysterious deaths of poultry on their farms, while the commercial farms take steps to cover-up and deny bird flu outbreaks on theirs. In Japan, for instance, authorities only found out about a bird flu outbreak at one of the country’s biggest commercial farms because of an anonymous call. In Thailand, bird flu was denied by the government and the industry for months while small farms were begging for answers. In India, the farm where the first outbreak occurred and which is owned by South Asia’s biggest poultry multinational claimed it was another disease and pointed to testing done at its own labs, which was later contradicted by independent tests. Yet, despite this track record, the industry remains largely self-regulated and, even in Indonesia, where bird flu is killing people, authorities still have trouble getting access to the big commercial operations. All of this and more is in the report.

    Let me offer my own speculation: much of the outbreaks on commercial farms go unreported.

    Dr. Sims continues:

    A clear distinction needs to be made between farms that have in place sound biosecurity systems, which usually remain free from disease, and those where production systems are inadequate to prevent entry of pathogens.

    I note that Lao PDR has been used again as an example of a place where all outbreaks occurred in commercial flocks – but these were not high level, biosecure farms.

    Much of the problem in Asia has been caused by farms developing to service the rapidly growing urban demands for poultry without concurrent enhancement of farm biosecurity (i.e. a backyard flock grows bigger). This is not being driven by the big multinational companies but by smallholders who see the economic benefit of servicing these markets. These farmers grow more birds under fairly primitive conditions and do not implement appropriate disease control measures. The solution to this problem is to enhance the biosecurity of these farms.

    There are elements to what Dr. Sims says that I would agree with, however, it is important to bear in mind that most of the mid-sized farms that Dr. Sims is talking about are tightly integrated into the production systems of multinationals, generally as contract production operations. To suggest that these contract production operations are the result of small backyard farmers eagerly pursuing bigger farms is certainly a “half-truth”, to borrow his words. Multinationals such as Charoen Pokphand and others have pushed aggressively over the years to promote this model and governments have supported its development through agricultural banks and a whole range of incentives and regulations. Look at Thailand, where the Department of Livestock, a major source of chicks in the country, is only selling chicks to farmers in lots of thousands. Moreover, in many countries, such as Laos, Burma or Nigeria, the large commercial farms are generally not operated by your average farmers, but by businessmen and members of the political establishment.

    I’d rather not get into a lengthy discussion about how much such commercial operations actually contribute to food security and economic development, but, to quote Hans Wagner, Senior Animal Health and Production Officer with the FAO’s Asia-Pacific office: “The main beneficiaries of the demand surge [for meat in Asia] are large-scale, urban, capital-intensive producers and processors and urban middle and upper class consumers. The overwhelming majority of the poor do not benefit.”

    But let’s get back to this idea of biosecurity. Bird flu, whether H5N1 or other viruses, is no stranger to modern, supposedly “biosecure” operations.. In our report we list a few outbreaks of bird flu that have occurred on modern factory farms: Australia (1976, 1985, 1992, 1994, 1997), USA (1983, 2002, 2004), Great Britain (1991), Mexico (1993-1995), Hong Kong (1997), Italy (1999), Chile (2002), Netherlands (2003) and Canada (2004). In the case of the H5N1 virus, outbreaks have happened on plenty of factory farms run by multinationals: India, Vietnam, China, etc.

    Which brings me to Dr. Sims’ next point:

    This article also suggests that the virus needs to circulate in poultry to become pathogenic. This is not the case with the H5N1 viruses circulating currently. These are already highly pathogenic from the moment they enter a flock and have been since 1996.

    – note: see above message from Dr Sims, re emergence of 1996 virus

    This is not what we say in our report. We do not say that H5N1 needs to circulate in poultry before becoming pathogenic. What we say is that highly-pathogenic viruses are not generated in backyard flocks but in the crowded, genetically uniform, and highly susceptible flocks of factory farms. It is well-documented that low-pathogenic viruses evolve into highly-pathogenic viruses within factory farms, even in ultra-modern “biosecure” farms. This is the likely source of the highly-pathogenic H5N1 virus. Our point is that new highly-pathogenic viruses (bird flu or other) can emerge from these farms at any point and there’s no reason to think that we won’t soon see a new H5 or H7 virus on the loose.

    What we also say is that factory farms amplify the disease in ways that backyard flocks and wild birds do not have the capacity to. On a factory farm the mortality rate is regularly 100%; it is almost always much lower in backyard farms. The viral load that infected factory farms generate can then spread rapidly through the many channels that flow in and out of the factory farm and that flow far and wide– live animals, chicks, hatching eggs, feed, machinery, etc.

    Fundamentally, the biosecurity solution that Dr Sims appears to be proposing locks us into a vicious cycle. Breeches happen in the biosecurity of a factory farm, this is followed by calls for tighter controls, leading to new expenses, bigger farms, and more drastic interventions, such as bans on outdoor poultry and transgenic chickens– which researchers at Cambridge University are already pursuing. And as the cycle goes on, the potential consequences grow ever larger, not just in terms of the potential for the release of pandemic viruses, but also on the ground, in the destruction of small farms, biodiversity and local food systems. In our report we point out that in Viet Nam the FAO admits that the implementation of one element of its proposed restructuring plan for the poultry sector (“production zones”) would result in the loss of income of potentially one million small commercial producers.

    As experience with other poultry diseases, such as Newcastle Disease, has shown, small farms can effectively manage poultry diseases and keep losses to a minimum. They have the added advantage of being run by small farmers– providing them with a direct source of income, food security, and dignity.

    As we write in our report:

    “Backyard farming is not an idle pastime for landowners. It is the crux of food security and farming income for hundreds of millions of rural poor in Asia and elsewhere, providing a third of the protein intake for the average rural household. Nearly all rural households in Asia keep at least a few chickens for meat, eggs and even fertilizer and they are often the only livestock that poor farmers can afford. The birds are thus critical to their diversified farming methods, just as the genetic diversity of poultry on small farms is critical to the long-term survival of poultry farming in general.”

    Backyard poultry production is far more valuable to the people of the countries affected by bird flu than the large factory farms. Effective measures need to be taken to protect these systems from bird flu, even if this means putting the brakes on factory farming and looking to more sustainable and diverse means of poultry production. Unfortunately governments are doing the opposite– sacrificing backyard poultry farming and small farmers to protect a politically powerful industry.

    -Devlin Kuyek

    The full GRAIN briefing, “Fowl play: The poultry industry’s central role in the bird flu crisis”, is available at http://www.grain.org. Spanish and French translations will be posted shortly.