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DON'T BLAME US: Wild birds such as these Canada Geese have long carried viruses, but generally in innocuous strains. Now they’re victims of lethal avian influenza, fuelled by the massive global expansion of factory poultry farms. Photo by Marley Anthony | Unsplash, used with permission. 

 

If you occasionally see news of avian influenza, you might assume it's just an unfortunate situation for the poultry industry, which could raise the cost of omelettes, nuggets, and wings. Also called avian flu or bird flu, this influenza has been dramatic for industrial poultry as the virus rips through barns of tens of thousands of birds that get slaughtered when infection is detected. Many poultry have been destroyed worldwide to stop the spread — including more than 11 million in Canada, most of those in B.C, according to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.[1] Avian flu is a big reason you may have seen shortages and price rises for both chicken and eggs.[2]

But evidence is emerging that avian flu is a story much bigger than economics – and a story that will only end well if we stop pinning all the blame on wild birds.  

Here are three things everyone should know about avian flu.

1. The disease is spreading and killing animals across species. 

Poultry by the millions. Growing numbers of wild birds, and mammals as well. Unprecedented numbers of animals have been felled by the latest wave of highly pathogenic avian flu (HPAI) via its underlying H5N1 virus.  HPAI has emerged intermittently since it caught scientific attention in 1996-7. But this latest global outbreak, which started in 2021, is like none before.[3] The disease is infecting and killing ever more farmed poultry, and is felling wild birds in more than 500 species in Canada, Japan, Germany, Pakistan and dozens of other nations. Eagles, owls, pelicans, gannets, snow geese, the majestic and already endangered California condor — members of these species and more have died of avian flu.

Just in the past week, alarming data have rolled in. Bird flu has been detected in dairy cows, goats, chickens — and a person — around the U.S., forcing some farms and egg companies to temporarily shut their doors. These are just the latest incidents showing the reach and severity of avian-flu infections. Animals found infected include foxes, minks, bears, and both penguins and seals near the Antarctic.  Even a pet dog in Oshawa, Ontario, died of avian flu last year. If you're planning a trip of a lifetime to the iconic Galapagos Islands, you'll find some sites off-limits after local seabirds tested positive for the flu.   

Governments and scientists around the world are nervous. The United Nations has been concerned for years, and in 2005 established a Scientific Task Force on Avian Influenza and Wild Birds. In its 2023 report, the Task Force said H5N1 is now “causing unparalleled mortality of wild birds and mammals worldwide.”  Avian influenza, warns the Task Force, should be high priority, and not just for the poultry industry but for wildlife biodiversity and human well-being.  

2. Industry blames wild birds, but there’s an elephant-sized chicken in the room.

Ask officials of the poultry industry, and you’ll be told that migrating waterfowl are the source of HPAI.[4] And wild birds do carry pathogens. Ducks, geese, and others have long carried H5N1 and other viruses — but in innocuous or low-pathogenic strains. Wild birds can then shed viruses as they fly over commercial barns. The microbes also spread to poultry farms via humans (originally from wild birds or not) on contaminated shoes, clothes, machines, animal feed and bedding.[5]  

But there's an elephant in this room, in the form of the tens of billions (yes, billions) of poultry, mostly chickens, on the planet. It was in commercial poultry that the lethal version of H5N1 first appeared.[6] And scientific research shows that viruses mutate and spread in crowded poultry operations.

This jumped out at me from the pages of a peer-reviewed scientific article. Authored by United Nations Food and Agriculture scientist Madhur Dhingra and her international colleagues, [7] the article documented their quest to identify all reported global cases, over more than 50 years, in which low-pathogenic avian flu strains morphed into high-pathogenic ones. The researchers found 39 such mutation events, a full 37 of which (94%) occurred in commercial poultry operations. The article showed that genetic transformation of avian flu viruses, from innocuous to lethal, occurs predominantly among intensive poultry

 Should we be surprised?  Poultry barns crowd thousands, sometimes a million or more, birds together in conditions that don't allow for natural behaviours such as caring for their young. Stressed and immuno-compromised, they're already unnaturally genetically identical[8] to each other, so lack normal resilience. On top of that, although viruses are on the prowl, those birds are not social-distancing.

That's the system churning out 75% of poultry globally, an astonishing 99% of poultry in the U.S.[9] and the vast majority in Canada. With the industry having exploded by 800% in the past 50 years,[10] our planet now houses over 30 billion farmed birds at any one time. Encouraged by aggressive marketing, global consumers are eating more chicken than beef or pork.[11] The question “What’s for dinner?” is now often answered with one word: “Chicken.”[12] 

Industrial poultry systems contravene basic ecological principles by creating animal monocultures. Ecosystems don't like monocultures, which have none of the resilience that diversity confers. And while industry blames nature, others increasingly see wild creatures as victims of human systems. In the words of the Task Force, “Wild birds are both victims and vectors of a virus originating from within a poultry setting.”[13]

Harvard-NYU study cover
 IS THIS A HEALTHY WAY TO RAISE POULTRY WHEN VIRUSES ARE ON THE PROWL? This cover (image by George Steinmetz) of a 2023 Harvard/NYU study shows a confined animal feeding operation in Iowa that produces 150,000 turkeys annually. Titled Animal Markets and Zoonotic Disease in the United States, the study discusses the role played in emerging infectious diseases by humans’ use of animals, including in production and trade of poultry. 

3. There is currently low risk for humans, but that could change.

Less than 1,000 people worldwide are known to have caught the HPAI H5N1 virus  mostly individuals exposed to infected birds[14] but the fatality rate appears high.[15] Reports are concerning, including news just this past week that a person in Texas contracted bird flu after contact with dairy cattle. HPAI-watchers fear that the virus will further mutate to become easily transmissible among humans.  

If you’re motivated to watch fast-changing data on HPAI H5N1, here are some great resources:

A Global Issue 

Avian flu is more than a problem for farmers or consumers. It's a worldwide blow to biodiversity and wildlife conservation. Its capacity to mutate is a looming danger for human health, with potential to create a pandemic that would make Covid-19 look like a trial run, according to Dr. Michael Greger, best-selling author of Bird Flu: A Virus of Our Own Hatching.[19] And it's potentially a global issue for food security.  

The topic of avian flu is a pressing one, which intersects my research area of food, public health, and environment. HPAI speaks to today’s biggest issues of environment, public health, and food justice. On the optimistic front, HPAI is a potential route to progress on these highest of human aspirations. We can mitigate avian flu, and move toward sustainability and health, if we take action.  

The Scientific Task Force on Avian Influenza and Wild Birds doesn’t hold back on what kinds of action should come from government, industry, and citizens. I'll expand on that soon in further posts. My next post will address the question:   

Why is British Columbia's poultry industry so prone to avian flu, and what can we do about it?

Watch this space and sign up for my newsletter.  

 
FURTHER READING 

Greger, Michael. Bird Flu: A Virus of Our Own Hatching. Lantern Books, 2006.  

Puryear, Wendy et al. 2023. “Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza A (H5N1) Virus Outbreak in New England Seals, United States.” Emerging Infectious Diseases, April 2023, 29(4): 786-791. doi: 10.3201/eid2904.221538   

Ritchie, Hannah. “How many animals are factory-farmed?” Our World in Data (blog) Sept 25, 2023. https://ourworldindata.org/how-many-animals-are-factory-farmed   

Sidik, Saima May. “The Bird Flu Blazes on, Amping up Concerns for Wildlife and Human Health.” Audubon Magazine, Spring 2023. https://www.audubon.org/magazine/spring-2023/the-bird-flu-blazes-amping-concerns-wildlife-and  

WOAH (World Organisation for Animal Health), “Avian Influenza: Situation Reports.” https://www.woah.org/en/disease/avian-influenza/#ui-id-2  

Data are being updated constantly in the U.S., and can be seen at:   

“H5N1 Bird Flu: Current Situation Summary.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (blog). https://www.cdc.gov/flu/avianflu/avian-flu-summary.htm   

“2022-2024 Detections of Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza in Wild Birds.” US Department of Agriculture. https://www.aphis.usda.gov/aphis/ourfocus/animalhealth/animal-disease-information/avian/avian-influenza/hpai-2022/2022-hpai-wild-birds 

 

NOTES

[1] Data as of Jan. 12, 2024. Up-to-date numbers on birds affected in Canada are available from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, “Estimated Number of Birds in Infected Flocks,” under “Flocks in Canada Where HPAI Has Been Detected,” at https://inspection.canada.ca/animal-health/terrestrial-animals/diseases/reportable/avian-influenza/latest-bird-flu-situation/status-of-ongoing-avian-influenza-response/eng/1640207916497/1640207916934

[2] Greg Iacurci, “Egg Prices Are On The Rise Again,” CNBC, Jan. 19, 2024, https://www.cnbc.com/2024/01/19/why-egg-prices-are-increasing-again.html

[3] US Centre for Disease Control, “Emergence and Evolution of H5N1 Bird Flu,” accessed Jan. 23, 2024, https://www.cdc.gov/flu/avianflu/communication-resources/bird-flu-origin-infographic.html

[4] There are many examples in media of industry statements that focus exclusively on wild birds while all but ignoring the role of commercial poultry practices, as in: David P. Ball, “Avian Flu Expands Across BC, Endangering Poultry, Birds of Prey and Other Wildlife,” CBC News, November 17, 2023, https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/avian-flu-b-c-poultry-1.7031940. This piece cited a B.C. Poultry Association spokesperson stating that “as [migrating waterfowl] come through the Fraser Valley, they are spreading the virus.”

[5] Compassion in World Farming, Bird Flu: Only Major Farm Reforms Can End It, 2023, https://www.ciwf.com/news/2023/08/major-farm-reforms-needed-to-end-bird-flu, 5.

[6] Stephanie Sonnberg et al., “Natural History of Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza,” Virus Research 178(1), December 5, 2013. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3787969/. Samantha Lycett et al, A Brief History of Bird Flu, 2019

[7] Madhur S. Dhingra et al., “Geographical and Historical Patterns in the Emergences of Novel Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI) H5 and H7 Viruses in Poultry,” Frontiers in Veterinary Science, June 5, 2018, https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fvets.2018.00084/full  See also a 2023 extension of that work in: Maria F. Gonzalez et al. "Poultry intensification and emergence of Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza". Veterinaria Italiana, October 6, 2023. https://www.veterinariaitaliana.izs.it/index.php/GEOVET23/article/view/3229.  As well, see the World Organization for Animal Health, which says, “Wild birds mostly, wild aquatic birds can be the reservoir for LPAI viruses, and such infections are not associated with disease or mortality in their hosts. Over long periods of time, some of these [low-pathogenicity avian influenza] viruses have moved into domestic birds (notably galliform poultry [including chickens and turkeys]) through direct or indirect exposure followed by adaptation and circulation. Some of those viruses have mutated to become [high pathogenicity avian influenza] causing severe losses.” WOAH (World Organisation for Animal Health), “Avian Influenza: Situation Reports,” accessed February 7, 2024. https://www.woah.org/en/disease/avian-influenza/

[8] See Madhur S. Dhingra et al., “Geographical and Historical Patterns in the Emergences of Novel Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI) H5 and H7 Viruses in Poultry,” Frontiers in Veterinary Science, June 5, 2018, https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fvets.2018.00084/full These scientists identified all occasions in which H5 and H7 avian flu viruses made the conversion from low pathogenicity to high pathogenicity globally between 1959 to 2015. They found that 37 out of 39 such genetic conversion events happened in commercial poultry production systems, mostly in high-income countries. See also the World Organization for Animal Health, which says, “Wild birds mostly, wild aquatic birds can be the reservoir for LPAI viruses, and such infections are not associated with disease or mortality in their hosts. Over long periods of time, some of these [low-pathogenicity avian influenza] viruses have moved into domestic birds (notably galliform poultry [including chickens and turkeys]) through direct or indirect exposure followed by adaptation and circulation. Some of those viruses have mutated to become [high pathogenicity avian influenza] causing severe losses.” WOAH (World Organisation for Animal Health), “Avian Influenza: Situation Reports,” accessed February 7, 2024. https://www.woah.org/en/disease/avian-influenza/

[9] Hannah Ritchie, “How Many Animals Are Factory-Farmed?” Our World In Data (blog), Sept 25, 2023, https://ourworldindata.org/how-many-animals-are-factory-farmed

[10] Poultry World, “Remarkable Dynamics of the Global Poultry Industry,” October 13, 2023, https://www.poultryworld.net/the-industrymarkets/market-trends-analysis-the-industrymarkets-2/remarkable-dynamics-of-the-global-poultry-industry-2/

[11] OECD | Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, OECD-FAO Agricultural Outlook 2023-2032, July 6, 2023, https://www.oecd-ilibrary.org/agriculture-and-food/oecd-fao-agricultural-outlook-2023-2032_08801ab7-en

[12] OECD | Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, OECD-FAO Agricultural Outlook 2023-2032, July 6, 2023, https://www.oecd-ilibrary.org/docserver/08801ab7-en.pdf

[13] UN Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species, Scientific Task Force on Avian Influenza and Wild Birds, July 2023 report, 3. https://www.cms.int/sites/default/files/publication/avian_influenza_2023_aug.pdf

[14] National Collaborating Centre for Environmental Health (Canada), “Avian Influenza A(H5N1) 2022 Outbreak in Canada,” accessed Jan. 24, 2024, https://ncceh.ca/resources/evidence-briefs/avian-influenza-ah5n1-2022-outbreak-canada. Additionally, as of Jan 29, 2024, two more human cases of avian flu have been reported in Cambodia; see Lisa Schnirring, “Cambodia Reports 2 More Human H5N1 Avian Flu Infections,” CIDRAP Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy (blog), January 29, 2024. https://www.cidrap.umn.edu/avian-influenza-bird-flu/cambodia-reports-2-more-human-h5n1-avian-flu-infections

[15] Virologists caution that we don’t know how many people may have caught the virus, been asymptomatic or mildly ill, recovered, and never reported their condition to health authorities. See for example virologist Ron Fouchier’s March 2023 presentation to a World Health Organization event on H5N1 HPAI at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ve9-xO_gNk4, timestamp 15:24.

[16] Canadian Wildlife Health Cooperative, “Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza — Wildlife Dashboard,” accessed Jan. 23, 2024, https://www.cwhc-rcsf.ca/avian_influenza.php

[17] Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations: “Global Avian Influenza Viruses with Zoonotic Potential Situation Update,” https://www.fao.org/animal-health/situation-updates/global-aiv-with-zoonotic-potential/bird-species-affected-by-h5nx-hpai/en

[18] Look for latest monthly situation analyses (including cumulative case counts and case fatality rate percentages for A[H5N1]; as of this writing the latest published was December 2023) at Government of Canada, “Human Emerging Respiratory Pathogens Bulletin,” https://www.canada.ca/en/public-health/services/surveillance/human-emerging-respiratory-pathogens-bulletin.html.

[19] Greger, Bird Flu, 2006.

 

 

 

 

 

 

1 Comment


Alex Jamieson about 13 hours ago

Hi Michael,

Thanks for your article on bacon and pork feedlots.

Below is Eleanor Boyle's article about another kind of caged industrial meat

As an omnivore and an environmentalist, I think it can't be overstated how damaging industrial agriculture is to our health and our environment. However, my personal preference is to seek grass-fed, organic, regenerative agriculture, both for meat, plants, eggs and dairy.

Personally I am not fond of fake meat, better to just eat something else if you don't want industrial agriculture. Nutritionally, I am concerned about so much soy or pea protein, from China.

So when I talk to people I try to educate them about industrial agriculture but I don't try to convert them to fake meat, or even plant-based diet. Using my family as an example, I point people to where my family has bought meat for about 30 years, a regenerative ranch in BC called Big Bear Ranch.

Finally, I urge you to follow regenerate.org, or regeneratebc.org.

Thanks,
Alex Jamieson, North Vancouver, BC, Canada

Avian Flu: Way More Than An Industry Problem


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