Martin W

    from Devlin Kuyek of Grain:

    Dear Martin,

    My apologies for jumping to the conclusion that Dr. Sims had not read the report. Perhaps I’ve been influenced by all the speculation that surrounds this issue (or maybe it was his reference to Laurie Garrett). I would like to briefly respond to a couple points in his latest posting, while encouraging others on your forum with more knowledge than I to reply to those points that I have left out.

    It is admirable that Dr Sims is devoting his attention to smallholder farmers. We too believe that they are most at risk from continued outbreaks of bird flu, not only from the virus but also from control measures that are impractical for them to implement and "restructuring" plans that will wipe them out of the picture. We also believe, from our experience in working closely with farmers around the world, that farmers have a tremendous wealth of knowledge about how to manage disease on their farms, whether for crops or animals, that is all too often dismissed as "primitive" by outside experts. As Dr Sims alluded to in his comments, biosafety requires different approaches for small, mixed farms and factory farms. He can correct me if I’m wrong, but conventional approaches to control Newcastle Disease, for instance, are entirely different for small holders and big operations.

    With small farms, Newcastle is treated as a low-level disease that regularly occurs but that causes only minor mortality. But in a factory farm, it can get in through a small breech of biosecurity, evolve to more virulent strains, rapidly wipe out most if not all of the flock and then spread to other factory farms and smallholder farms, where it is now more lethal. That’s why there are massive culls whenever an outbreak occurs at a factory farm (as it regularly does).

    In general, biosafety on a small farm focuses on balance and adaptation to the local ecosystem (with outside interventions required only under certain circumstances– vaccines, etc). The goal is to keep diseases in check– an approach that certainly makes sense when the disease is endemic, as bird flu now seems to be. This is not possible for a factory farm, which is why it must be totally enclosed and must take such drastic biosafety measures– which are inevitably breeched at some point. From our research in bird flu and other poultry viruses it also seems clear that a central element of biosafety for small farms is to protect them from the poultry industry.

    As we point out in the report, what is most interesting about the Laos case, where highly-pathogenic H5N1 is confined to the commercial sector, is that there is almost no contact between the small holder sector and the industrial farm sector (markets, etc). In other words, small farms in Laos appear to be protected from H5N1 because they are protected from the poultry industry, although the illegal poultry imports coming from Thailand and China are worrying. (Laos also has the lowest ratio of vets to poultry farms in the region and the highest percentage of native chickens, which should give some pause for thought.)

    As we also point out in our report, the FAO and the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) report that there is "growing evidence that the survival of the virus in smallholder and backyard poultry is dependent on replenishment." But this incredible statement from these top agencies has received hardly any attention! And hardly anyone is considering how poultry biodiversity may be related, even though the same agencies report that village chickens are showing resistance to H5N1.

    It seems to us that the key to keeping the virus under control is to keep it from getting out of control. And the understanding that we have gleaned from our research is that this disease gets out of control in the factory farms. It may be that geese and free-ranging ducks were involved in the emergence of the H5N1 strains now stalking the planet, as Dr Sims suspects.

    But our view is that the problem only exploded because of factory farming and the transnational poultry industry. Just look at the most recent outbreaks in Nigeria and India. Or look at the massive outbreak in Southern Russia, where the top vet speculates that half a million chickens died on a few factory farms because some wild birds got into the feed preparation facilities. This is why we say that the poultry industry is at the centre of the bird flu crisis.

    When I asked Joseph Domenech, the Chief Veterinarian of the FAO, about the Laos case, he said that it was the low poultry density in the country as well as the lack of major markets that prevented outbreaks. Well could it be that small-scale, biodiverse, mixed farming and local markets are the solution to the bird flu problem? Could it be that this is the kind of so-called restructuring that countries like Vietnam and Thailand require?

    Enjoying the discussion….