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Terrorist Ducks and Free-Range Sleeper Cells?
By Rob Wallbridge
Wednesday, January 25, 2006
Canada Free Press

Terrorist ducks and free-range sleeper cells? It's an odd idea to
imagine, yet this appears to be the way some governments are viewing
wild birds and outdoor flocks of poultry in the wave of paranoia
surrounding the H5N1 strain of avian influenza. In early November, the
government of Quebec imposed strict new regulations governing poultry
farming in the province. Chief among them was the requirement that all
poultry be kept locked indoors, sealed away from any type of potential
contact with wild birds. The intention is to protect the province's
poultry industry and its export markets from the threat of avian flu.
But is this response the right one?

This action not only impacts a large number of small farmers who are
accustomed to letting their poultry free range, it also threatens the
ability of certified organic producers to continue to raise their
flocks according to organic standards and according to their
customer's expectations.

There are broader concerns too, about the real source of the current
strain of H5N1 avian flu, the true effectiveness of this "exposure
avoidance" approach to dealing with the threat, and its impact on the
poultry industry, farmers, consumers, and human health worldwide.
Consider the following:

  a.. The traditional Asian farms and markets that are being blamed
for the current problem have been in existence for 7,000 years.

  b.. Avian flu has been present for hundreds of years, and was first
noticed to cause human disease over 100 years ago. Even the H5N1strain
has been present since at least 1959. The current strain of highly
pathogenic H5N1 flu is believed to have started in southern China in
early 2003.

  c.. This area, like many parts of Southeast Asia is home to
rapidly-expanding 'modern' intensive poultry production, as well as
traditional farms and live-bird markets.

  d.. Our knowledge of viruses tells us that large, intensive
livestock facilities are the perfect breeding ground for the emergence
of highly-pathogenic, virulent strains: they house large numbers of
birds in close quarters whose immune systems have been compromised by
stress, poor living conditions, and feeds medicated with hormones and
antibiotics. (Current biosecurity protocols may even aid in their
emergence by selecting against strains that are easier to eliminate.)

  e.. This has already been demonstrated in North American poultry
barns with the IBD virus. which has become more virulent in the
decades following the emergence of intensive operations. It has since
spread around the world, despite culls, vaccines, quarantines, and all
manner of biosecurity measures. (Research has linked the
immune-weakening effects of IBD to recent outbreaks of H5N1 avian flu
in Hong Kong.)

  a.. In contrast, in a 2002 avian flu outbreak in Virginia, all
flocks within the "Hot Zone" were tested. While several confined
flocks of all breeds and ages were infected, none of the backyard
flocks were infected.

  b.. University tests have found lower bacterial contamination in
pasture poultry: less than 4% of that in conventional poultry

  c.. Another study showed that heritage turkey breeds had better
immune function, lower death rates, and more nutrients like vitamin C
than industrial turkeys.

  d.. Several studies have recognized the nutritional benefits of
pastured poultry products, especially related to essential fatty acids
like omega-3 and CLA.

Taking these facts into account, we can reach the following conclusions:

  a.. There is reason to suspect that the current strain of H5N1
emerged from an intensive operation and then spread in areas where
large numbers of birds and large human populations are in close
contact (a situation that doesn't exist in Canada).

  b.. Previous experience (with poultry and swine diseases on the
small-scale and BSE and foot and mouth disease on a tragic scale)
tells us that this "exposure avoidance" approach to disease control is
bound to fail sooner or later. As the old adage goes, "Nature always
bats last."

  c.. There is evidence to suggest that either the genetics or the
environment (or both) of properly cared-for outdoor flocks confers
some resistance to avian flu, as well as providing nutritional
benefits to those who consume "pastured poultry" products.

These conclusions suggest that the recent measures taken by the Quebec
government are probably unnecessary, will be ineffective at best, and
will be very likely highly counterproductive. A more effective
strategy would be to focus on avoiding the mutation of the virus to
its lethal form. This strategy would include:

  a.. Researching what factors make birds (and humans) healthier and
less susceptible to flu viruses--a "health-building" rather than
"exposure avoidance" approach

  b.. Working with farmers of all sizes and types of operations to
build the health and strengthen the immune system of their birds.

  c.. Encouraging small, genetically-diverse flocks in order to reduce
the risk of mutation and to preserve genetic material for future
generations--this is the same strategy nature has successfully
employed for thousands of years

Not only will these measures protect the health of our birds and our
human population, they will also preserve and increase the quality and
diversity of the poultry products available to consumers. This in turn
will benefit farmers and rural communities by reducing the
concentration of market power that would otherwise accelerate--a
problem made very clear by the BSE crisis and one that is plaguing the
entire farm sector.

Let's hope that the Quebec government reconsiders its position, and
that all governments across Canada work with the entire farm community
to create a balanced, rational approach to this and other livestock
disease concerns.

(Rob Wallbridge was born and raised on a family farm in Ontario and
obtained a Bachelor of Arts & Science Degree from McMaster University
in 1995. He currently works as an organic agricultural consultant and
operates a diversified certified organic farm near Shawville, Quebec
with his wife and child.)
The above articles was posted by:
Barry Kent MacKay
Canadian Representative
Animal Protection Institute  
For updates and info, contact scott at planttrees dot org.