New Meat Byproducts: Avian Flu and Global Climate Change

San Francisco—The growth of factory farms, their proximity to congested cities in the developing world, and the globalized poultry trade are all culprits behind the spread of avian flu, while livestock wastes damage the climate at a rate that surpasses emissions from cars and SUVs. These preliminary findings on avian flu and meat production, from the upcoming Worldwatch Institute report Vital Signs 2007–2008, were released today by research associate Danielle Nierenberg at the annual conference of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in San Francisco.

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 2006, global meat production increased 2.5 percent to an estimated 276 million tons. Sixty percent of this production occurred in the developing world, where half of all meat is now consumed thanks to rising incomes and exploding urbanization.

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.

Due mainly to the spread of avian flu and the culling of birds, global poultry output rose only slightly in 2006 to approximately 83 million tons, roughly a 1-percent decrease from the preceding year. Pig meat production, however, grew by 3 percent to 108 million tons, an increase likely due to shifting consumption in Asia from chicken to pork due to concerns about avian flu.

Avian flu has existed among backyard flocks for centuries, but has never been found to evolve there into highly pathogenic forms such as the deadly H5N1 virus. In CAFOs, in contrast, where animals are concentrated by the thousands, diseases erupt and spread quickly. Trade in poultry from these operations is a culprit in spreading the disease to smallholder farmers.

Experts suggest that rather than culling smaller, backyard flocks, the FAO, WHO, and other international agencies should focus the bulk of their avian flu prevention efforts on large poultry producers and on stopping disease outbreaks before they occur. The industrial food system not only threatens the livelihoods of small farmers, it potentially puts the world at risk for a potential flu pandemic. “While H5N1…may have been a product of the world’s factory farms, it’s small producers who have the most to lose,” says Nierenberg.

Intensive animal farming is not only deleterious to human health and economies; it is also responsible for a great deal of ecological destruction. The growing numbers of livestock are responsible for 18 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions (as measured in carbon dioxide equivalent). They account for 37 percent of emissions of methane, which has more than 20 times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide, and 65 percent of emissions of nitrous oxide, another powerful greenhouse gas, most of which comes from manure.

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For additional information:

A Fowl Plague” (January/February 2007 issue of World Watch)

Worldwatch Paper #171: Happier Meals: Rethinking the Global Meat Industry, 2005