Country after country is being hit by the newest wave of deadly avian flu.
Around the world, entire flocks of free-range poultry are being hastily shut up indoors in an effort to protect them from infection. Thousands if not millions of birds being culled.
Although the strain sweeping across Europe is not is not a threat to human health, nine people have reportedly died in China this year alone as a result of catching one of the strains which can infect humans.
It’s easy to feel helplessness in the face of such devastation. However, looking at the facts, there is quite clearly a solution.
The truth about avian flu is that, for a long time, it was present in wild birds without causing any serious illness, much like a run-of-the-mill cold or flu in humans. The virus only turned into the deadly strains we know today when the global poultry industry started to intensify.
In its original, low-pathogenic form, the virus would pass from bird to bird with very little mutation. When it reached domestic poultry flocks, it was like a bull in a china shop. With hundreds of new hosts to infect within close proximity, the virus mutated at a speed never seen before.
The cramped and crowded conditions on factory farms provide the perfect grounds for the virus to mutate. Animals suffer from stress, causing poorer immune systems, there is wet litter, poor air quality, and a lack of sunlight.
From domestic poultry, the virus - now highly-pathogenic, virulent, and deadly - made its way back to wild birds. Due to their migratory routes, wild birds are being blamed for the outbreaks we are currently witnessing across the word. Generally, the response has been to order birds inside and preventatively cull them by the thousands.
The faulty logic behind blaming wild birds for avian flu is staggering. If bringing the birds indoors to ‘protect’ them from wild birds is the solution to preventing the spread of bird flu, why are we still seeing outbreaks?
It’s not just flawed logic at play here. The science showing that wild birds are causing these outbreaks is lacking. On the other hand, science proving the deadly strains of the virus emerged from intensive farming is more and more prevalent. One scientist laid out this week how industrial production of poultry gives rise to deadly strains of bird flu. While this case study relates to the US, the same principles apply globally.
The bottom line seems to be that the large-scale poultry industry has upset the longstanding balance between bird flu viruses and birds - wild or domestic. The highly- pathogenic strains of bird flu are a creation of the industrial-scale poultry industry that transformed the relatively harmless low-pathogenic bird flu into a lethal disease which is circulating apparently endlessly in poultry, and that infects wild birds who come in contact with it.
Merely treating the ‘symptoms’ does nothing to cure the cause. Avian flu isn’t going to just go away. If we keep farming the way we do, it’s here to stay. That is what is so concerning about avian flu: constantly evolving, it will always be one step behind us, on our tails, as we scramble to stay ahead of it. Surely it’s time to re-think the way we do things, and finally treat the cause of the ailment, not the symptoms?
The opportunities for developing the higher-welfare market here in the UK, post-Brexit, are very strong. Just yesterday, the farming minister George Eustice was said to be ‘seriously considering’ introducing financial incentives to encourage farmers to adopt higher animal welfare standards.
We must seize this opportunity to finally accept that intensive farming needs to be abandoned in favour of free-range – not just in this country, but globally. It’s time to turn our backs on factory farming, and with it the wretched virus plaguing farmed and wild birds alike.
Compassion in World Farming campaigns to end factory farming. My new book, Dead Zone, explores the links between factory farming and the demise of our iconic wildlife, and what we can do to save it.
Somewhere, somehow, we have taken a wrong turn.