Living the Scientific Life (Scientist, Interrupted)

Over the weekend, I found this new report [PDF] by GRAIN that shows that the global poultry farming industry is, as I suspected, the primary cause of H5N1 avian influenza, NOT wild birds and backyard free-range poultry farmers as is so widely reported by the media. Further, this report claims that the probable cause for the increased lethality of the avian influenza virus is a direct result of the horrible conditions perpetuated by poultry industry (as I have stated).

This linked report is quite long, but it is important because it claims that the primary source for avian influenza is, and has been, the commercial poultry industry. It discusses the evidence, showing that the virus primarily spreads via shipments of domestic poultry — their chicks, eggs, meat, feathers, manure and feed — from one factory farm to another, along roads and other trade routes, and not along major flyways followed by wild birds, as I and others have noted. Yet, despite the fact that H5N1 outbreak locations are consistent with neither the seasonal timing of migration nor the routes followed by wild birds, many international and governmental agencies stubbornly continue to perpetuate the myth that wild birds are the primary vector for spreading the virus far and wide. However, Richard Thomas from BirdLife International sensibly points out;

“No species migrates from Qinghai, China, west to Eastern Europe. When plotted, the pattern of [H5N1] outbreaks follows major road and rail routes, not flyways. And the absence of outbreaks in Africa, South and Southeast Asia and Australasia this autumn is hard to explain, if wild birds are the primary carriers.”

Fear-mongers counter this evidence with their claim that the die-off of wild geese at Qinghai Lake, China, clearly shows that wild birds are the main culprits in the spread of avian influenza. However, careful studies of the region reveals that Qinghai Lake is surrounded by many large poultry operations, that there is a nearby fish farm (that the FAO helped to build) and that, according to BirdLife International, chicken feces are commonly used as food and fertilizer for fish farms in China. But certain authorities overlooked these rather important details, and more. For example, many trains and roads connect the Qinghai Lake area to other bird flu outbreak areas, like Lanzhou, which was the source of infected poultry that caused an earlier outbreak of H5N1 in Tibet (1,500 miles away).

But the FAO, among other respected agencies, consistently ignored these little facts until they were finally nailed down on this very issue in November 2005, when a spokesman finally admitted that [PDF];

“To date, extensive testing of clinically normal migratory birds in the infected countries has not produced any positive results for H5N1 so far.”

Another fact that is often overlooked is that almost all wild birds that tested positive for H5N1 were already dead and most of those were found close to large concentrations of domestic poultry that were known to have avian influenza. If anything, these data indicate that avian influenza is so rapidly lethal among wild birds that most die before they are able to relocate.

“Everyone is focused on migratory birds and backyard chickens as the problem,” says Devlin Kuyek of GRAIN. “But they are not effective vectors of highly pathogenic bird flu. [italics mine] The virus kills them, but is unlikely to be spread by them.”

So if wild birds and free-range poultry are not the primary flu vectors, how is avian influenza spread? The geographic and temporal evidence points directly to the transport of domestic poultry by industry;

“The evidence we see over and over again, from the Netherlands in 2003 to Japan in 2004 to Egypt in 2006, is that lethal bird flu breaks out in large scale industrial chicken farms and then spreads,” says Devlin Kuyek of GRAIN.

For example, earlier this year, the Nigerian outbreak began at a single factory farm owned by a Nigerian Cabinet minister. This particular factory farm is known for importing unregulated hatchable poultry eggs from Turkey where avian influenza outbreaks occurred, and it is located far from any migratory bird “refueling sites”. Therefore, it is much more likely that commercial imports of domestic birds from an already infected area (Turkey, in this case) were the source for the outbreak. But this isn’t unique: local authorities in India now say that H5N1 emerged and spread from one factory farm owned by that country’s largest poultry company, Venkateshwara Hatcheries.

The fact is that factory farms provide the perfect the “viral incubators” where avian influenza can amplify and increase in lethality because of the disgusting conditions of overcrowding and poor hygiene under which domestic poultry are kept, combined with the birds’ lack of genetic diversity. Within these crowded poultry farms, a mild virus rapidly evolves towards more pathogenic and highly transmissible forms, and becomes capable of jumping from one species to another, thereby spreading back into wild birds, which are defenseless against these new strains. These farms also produce polluted air that is thick with viruses that are carried on the breezes throughout the nearby countryside, where wild birds become ill and die, or are slaughtered in mass.

This same scenario is true for small-scale poultry production. Bird flu does not evolve to highly pathogenic forms in free-range poultry operations because the low population densities and the genetic diversity keeps the viral load to low levels. Instead, free-range poultry are the victims of bird flu strains that escape from industrial poultry producers.

The available evidence supports my assertions. For example, in Malaysia, the avian influenza mortality rate among the villagers’ free-range chickens was only 5%, suggesting that the virus is not effectively transmitted among small scale chicken flocks. H5N1 outbreaks in Laos, which is surrounded by infected countries, have only occurred in that nation’s few factory farms, which are supplied by Thai hatcheries, and for years, Thailand has waged an ongoing war against bird flu. Most incriminating of all; the only cases of bird flu that occurred in Laotian backyard poultry, which accounts for over 90% of that country’s total poultry production, were next to the factory farms.

So, based on this evidence, modern intensive farming methods and international shipment of poultry and their products obviously play a strong role in the ongoing H5N1 “problem” in Asia. In my opinion, if the international community was serious about preventing a pandemic of “bird flu”, then it is critical that they take immediate steps to tightly regulate industrialized poultry farming to prevent unrestricted movements of animals and their products from one region to another. Further, it is essential that backyard farming operations are protected from unnecessary mass slaughters so as to preserve the genetic diversity of these domestic animals. And last, but certainly not least, international organizations and governmental agencies should rely on real data and expert help as they develop workable strategies for dealing with health crises, instead of perpetuating the illusion that they are actually accomplishing something by declaring war on the victims. And in this case, the victims are wild birds and backyard poultry farmers.


Who is GRAIN? GRAIN is an international non-governmental organization (NGO) that promotes the sustainable management and use of agricultural biodiversity based on the people’s control over genetic resources and local knowledge. As such, they are not in the back pocket of national and international corporate and industrial giants.

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  1. #1 Dawn
    March 6, 2006

    you only have to see a commercial chicken farm once to know where the Avian Flu came from.


    good call Grrlscientist!

  2. #2 biosparite
    March 6, 2006

    As a former lobbyist and, before then, legislative and regulatory flack, for a trade association in Washington, I am already composing a white paper for industrial chicken farmers:

    We welcome this investigation of the epidemiology of H5N1 and commend the [fill in the blank] for undertaking this investigation. Feathers For Globalization is the largest association of factory chicken farmers in the USA and employs X thousands of workers throughout this great country. As a major employer of unskilled labor we support a number of rural communities nationwide with our own facilities and with downstream businesses that process and market our members’ production. Our expert vetrinarians and chickenologists have monitored the health of the nation’s flock since 1937 and have accumulated 40,000 person-years of research into and observation of factory-farmed fowl.
    We appear today with an extended written statement but would ask the Chairman’s permission to read a brief summary into the record.
    FFG has reviewed the evidence concerning the spread of H5N1 and has concluded migratory birds are the primary vector of its spread. These far-travelling wild birds are first exposed to the virus through interaction with ducks, chickens and pigs being raised in third-world, backyard farming operations in intimate contract with each other.
    A significant feature of subsistence animal husbandry is the feeding of wastes of each kind of animal is fed to the other. These farms comprise a series of microbial reactor vessels in which virus mutants are spawned in crowded, unsanitary conditions. From there mutated viruses are quickly released into the wild through contact between domestic poultry and wild birds.
    We are aware that factory poultry farms have been accused of playing a major role in the spread of H5N1. However, our chickens receive excellent nutrition and are maintained in sanitary conditions that represent a vast improvement over third-world chicken coops and pigstys. Let me emphasize our member companies’ chickens are free of both microbes and unsightly hairs.
    But in a spirit of rational inquiry we suggest that a government-industry study group be set up to address all critical issues relating to H5N1 to be funded by Congress for the next two years. Although this study will be redundant in some respects since our own FFG scientists have resolved the epidemiological issues surrounding this virus, the study will, nevertheless, yield rigorous analysis of how third-world peoples can better husband their flocks to avoid the genesis and spread of future avian influenza viruses.
    That concludes my summary. I would now be glad to address any questions fromthe committee.

  3. #3 Pamela
    March 6, 2006

    Did I not see something a few months back about smuggled parrots being possible vectors, too? Even if not, smuggling exotics might play a role in transmitting the virus and should be lambasted as well while the opportunity is around —

    Meanwhile, what *I’m* worried about is countries panicking and ordering slaughters of cats. Apparently this happened in Tehran last year because of some transmittable illness they had; I couldn’t research it b/c it would have broken my little cat hair smitted heart!

    Kudos to grrlscientist for persisting on shaming the horrible mass poultry raising conditions!

  4. #4 Allen Searls
    March 13, 2006

    Thanks, I found your post at the Grand Rounds and I’m glad I did. I’ve not heard this point of view on bird flu argued at all and it’s fascinating. I’ll be passing this around to others I know who are interested in this debate.

  5. #5 Dave Eaton
    March 15, 2006

    Fascinating. I had no idea. I’m a chemist, but biology fascinates me, and pandemics freak me out. I had not heard any of this about poultry.

    Is there a lot of poultry imported into this country (if this is how you suspect avian flu will arrive here)? Do you think that (granting that factory farming, regardless of ethics, is not likely to go away in the near term) that there should be monitoring programs for poultry workers? I’d be interested in putting pressure in the right places to see this instituted.

    I have seen predictions that avian flu will likely arrive here with migration of certain wild birds, but if you are correct, it would not need to correlate with this at all, right?

  6. #6 Australian bird
    March 16, 2006

    Good clear arguing.
    Thanks for the link to the paper.

    Very very very tired of the H5N1 spinning in the mainstream media.
    It is simply very clear that this thing is so virulent that it has to have mechanical help to get around.

  7. #7 GrrlScientist
    March 17, 2006

    Pamela; parrot smuggling is an abhorrent practice, but H5N1 is a minor reason for a smackdown, because H5N1 has not been definitively proven to be moved by smuggled parrots. because there are very few parrots smuggled into the USA (can’t say the same for other countries, though) since the import ban on wild-caught birds was enacted in the USA more than ten years ago, this appears to not be a big concern here. nonetheless, even if smuggled birds are shown to be moving the virus around, this pales in comparison to the masses of poultry that are moved LEGALLY from country to country without any monitoring or quarantine, etc.

    Allen thanks. i hope more people become aware of this very important issue.

    Dave; it is difficult to say for sure. it is possible that H5N1 will arrive in the USA via wild birds, BUT it could also arrive via a legal shipment of poultry or poultry products. for example, a shipment of poultry feet, labeled as some sort of seafood (i forget what, at this moment), was recently confiscated by alert officials here in the USA.

    but once H5N1 is here, the poultry industry will unquestionably play a major role in spreading it all over the countryside, even though they will deny it vociferously by blaming wild birds. but infected wild birds tend to drop dead from influenza rather quickly, usually dying before they move it very far, especially since they have to get where they are going under their own power.

    i haven’t run down all the statistics, but i don’t think there is much poultry moved into this country from overseas, although there always is the possibility that infected chickens can be smuggled in across our borders (cockfighting is quite popular in some parts of the country, and we already experienced an outbreak of Newcastle’s disease in California and other parts of the southwestern USA that was later shown to be spread primarily by cockfighting, and NOT by the exotic bird trade, as the USFWS frequently and erroneously claimed.)

  8. #8 GrrlScientist
    March 18, 2006

    i’ve been trying to figure out how to get several comments added to my blog, but finally had to opt for posting them myself. here’s one comment from Tara that belongs here;


    I tried to post this to your newest birdflu thread, but got a weird error (“No such entry ‘1936’.”)

    Man, that’s just bad. They need to read some Webster:

    Although culling domestic poultry to contain the spread of highly pathogenic H5N1 virus is considered an acceptable agricultural practice, culling migratory birds is not acceptable to any international authority (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations [FAO], the World Organization for Animal Health [OIE], the World Health Organization [WHO]). The idea of culling migratory birds must be strongly discouraged, for it could have unknown ecologic consequences. Instead, since highly pathogenic H5N1 has been demonstrated in migratory birds, the poultry industries of the world must adapt measures such as increased biosecurity, the use of vaccines, or both.

    I know a bunch of hunters out shooting birds isn’t quite “culling,” but still, not a good idea.



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