Since the latest avian flu outbreak began in late 2003, the virus has struck at least 250 people, killed more than 100 worldwide, terrified millions, and prompted governments to take rapid and decisive action. Agriculture and health officials--men and women in suits and white lab coats, not farmers--embarked upon drastic but seemingly necessary steps to stop the flu's spread, including culling tens of thousands of chickens and other birds in areas where outbreaks occurred, vaccinating chickens and other poultry (with often expensive medications), and recommending that people have less physical contact with their chickens.
The media, national governments, and development agencies have often blamed the spread of the disease on small rural and urban poultry farmers. Rural farmers especially depend on livestock to meet their daily needs for transportation, food, and fuel. And the cities of the developing world house an estimated 800 million farmers, many of them women, raising crops and animals for food, transportation, and income. It is those backyard and rooftop producers, some claim, with their unsanitary production and processing methods, that have encouraged the spread of avian flu--for example, by allowing chickens and other animals to roam freely in back yards and houses, and selling and killing live animals at wet markets, practices that are centuries old. A senior official of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) said in 2005 regarding avian flu, "The backyard chicken is the big problem and the fight against bird flu must be waged in the back yard of the world's poor."
As a result, at least 15 nations have restricted or even banned freerange and backyard production of birds, endangering the livelihoods of countless small farmers and jeopardizing the availability of affordable food for consumers. In June 2006, for instance, the government of Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, asked people to give up raising poultry; the ban may remain in place for months or even years. Vietnam has had one of the highest human death rates from avian flu, second only to Indonesia; more than 40 people have died over the last three years. In Cairo, Egypt, too, where women often raise chickens as a vital source of income, the government has outlawed all backyard poultry production, while in Laos and Indonesia, health and government officials are encouraging farmers to stop raising poultry.
But the blame for avian flu and other emerging animal diseases--bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), Nipah virus, and others--cannot be placed on the backs of small farmers (or migratory birds, as some officials at the World Health Organization and FAO have suggested). Recent studies in Asia and Africa indicate that the real culprits may be factory farming and the globalized poultry trade and transport of livestock.
People in developing countries now consume half of the world's meat, thanks to rising incomes and exploding urbanization. And cities in the developing world are not just consuming more animal products, they're also becoming centers of production. One of the main risk factors for the emergence and spread of new diseases is increasing demand for animal protein and the adoption of industrial production practices. A visitor to any factory farm will see chickens, pigs, and cattle crammed tightly together in cages, stalls, or feedlots and covered in manure. These animals also look very similar and for good reason: as demand for meat and other animal products grows, producers have abandoned local or native breeds in favor of livestock with very specific genetic traits, including the ability to gain weight quickly or produce more milk. This homogeneity, however, makes animals more vulnerable to disease and compels producers to use antimicrobial drugs, which in turn can lead to antibiotic resistance in animals and humans alike.
Rising demand has helped drive livestock production from rural mixed farming systems, where farmers raise a few different species of animals on grass, to intensive periurban and urban production of pigs and chickens that eat processed feed made from corn and soybeans. These confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs), or factory farms, create the perfect environment for the rapid spread of disease between animals and, often, people. Thanks to unregulated zoning and subsidies that encourage livestock production, huge chicken and pig CAFOs are moving closer to major urban areas in China, Bangladesh, India, and many countries in Africa. This, says Michael...