February 25, 2007

CAFOs and Avian Flu

Unless you eat all organic meat, a CAFO, or Concentrated/Confined Animal Feeding Operation, was probably the source of all the animal products you've used recently. Meat, milk, cheese, eggs, gelatin and leather, all probably came from one of these factory farms.

You may have heard that the cruel and unsanitary conditions in these feedlots have contributed to the massive overuse of antibiotics. Stressed out animals fed an unnatural diet and living in filth on bare earth or concrete, or cramped into tiny cages, get sick very easily. Very easily. Only large and regular doses of powerful antibiotics make the business model viable.

You may have heard that the manure lagoons generated by too many animals in that small a space pose serious health and environmental risks. The excess nitrogen can poison water supplies and streams, while the pathogen threat is almost too obvious to mention. Manure that should be spread out over a large area to help build healthy soil has been turned into a poison.

Now, it seems that CAFOs may be crucial incubators for Avian Flu, from Worldwatch:

... Rising demand for meat has helped drive livestock production away from rural, mixed-farming systems, where farmers raise a few different species on a grass diet, toward intensive periurban and urban production of pigs and chickens. Because of unregulated zoning and subsidies that encourage livestock production, chicken and pig “confined animal feedlot operations” (CAFOs), or factory farms, are moving closer to major urban areas in China, Bangladesh, India, and many countries in Africa.

Locating large chicken farms near cities might make economic sense, but the close concentration of the birds to densely populated areas can help foster and spread disease, Nierenberg says. 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 (the few small farms in the city where outbreaks occurred were located close to commercial operations). 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 neighboring backyard flocks, forcing already-poor farmers to kill their chickens. ...

Indeed, one of the world's most frequently touted weak links in stopping avian flu is poor farmers in Asia, whose governments can't afford to compensate them. Indonesia's government is notorious for this among their citizenry, which raises alarm among international observers:

... Poor governance is hindering Indonesia's response. Successive administrations have made compensation promises to Indonesian communities hit by natural disasters - ranging from the disastrous 2004 tsunami, to sporadic earthquakes and volcano eruptions, to the sort of flooding that recently deluged Jakarta and left more than 350,000 people homeless - only to be left high and dry or drastically shortchanged by local-level officials who control the rescue-relief purse strings.

That poor record has reportedly made poultry farmers, fearful that they will not be fairly compensated for agreeing to destroy their infected flocks, reluctant to cooperate with public-health authorities charged with locating and culling H5N1-hit fowl. In certain provincial districts, the army has been called out to manage culls of infected poultry after villagers resisted and fought with health officials seeking to destroy their flocks. ...

But as the Worldwatch release notes, everyone seems to be looking in the wrong direction - at small, subsistence farming operations instead of corporate agribusiness:

... At least 15 nations have restricted or banned free-range and backyard production of birds in an attempt to deal with avian flu on the ground, a move that may ultimately do more harm than good, according to 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 by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Health Organization,” she told participants at the AAAS event. “The socioeconomic importance of livestock to the world’s poor cannot be overstated.” ...

In other disease epidemics, concern is usually focused on the most likely vector populations. That's why schools would be among the first places closed in the event of a widespread flu pandemic, because children at school are already some of the most important vectors for contact-spread viral infections like colds and flus. In fighting STD outbreaks, health officials target prevention efforts first and foremost on identified segments of the population that engage in high-risk behavior. They know that if they can prevent what are sometimes only a handful of individuals from continuing to spread a disease, they can halt an outbreak and minimize future damage.

So why, when dealing with bird flu, are world health officials saving all their efforts to control the small producer instead of trying to close down the punishingly unsanitary and high-risk CAFOs that appear to be incubating it?

Natasha is currently an intern with the Michael Fields Agricultural Institute, an organization dedicated to outreach and education in sustainable agriculture and food systems issues. The opinions expressed in this post are her own and are not representations on behalf of MFAI. For regular legislative alerts about food sustainability issues, sign up with the National Campaign for Sustainable Agriculture.

Posted by natasha at February 25, 2007 11:46 AM | Agriculture | Technorati links |

My parents are both sick this weekend; they've been trading colds and my father is having one of his rare outbreaks of flu that leave him in bed for a few days while he sweats it out of his body. My oldest sister also seems to be sick, with the worst of it being her ear canals so infected that balance at her job (she's a nurse) has been a problem.

My mother started complaining about how she thought part of the problem was how their local GP seems to be a little too generous with the antibiotics, and I rattled off a condensed and simplified version of this article, about two hours before I read this specific article.

And, miracle of miralces, my mother took the points made to heart.

Before we each went our separate ways, we closed the phone conversation with some spots where I know she can find much healthier meat in the greater Indianapolis area.

If my parents are listening, people in general are noticing.

Posted by: palamedes at February 25, 2007 03:45 PM

Ut sounds like they could have the bird flu. not sure if you all are interested, but there is a bird flu discussion forum where everybody is talking about this thing. It's at http://www.Avianflutalk.com

Hope this helps!

Posted by: HellenMoore at February 26, 2007 01:29 AM