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January 13, 2022


Bird flu, one more problem for global livestock production


An eFeedLink Hot Topic





African swine fever (ASF) has dealt a very severe blow to swine industries; but as serious an impact this disease had created on pork supplies, it is not known to affect human health.


On the other hand, high pathogenicity avian influenza (HPAI), or bird flu,  threatens both the lives of poultry species and humans. 


Since May this year, bird flu outbreaks was reported in poultry and wild birds in 41 countries, according to the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE). As of December, the spread of HPAI shows no sign of abating — the United Kingdom, for example, reported its biggest bird flu outbreak in Northern Ireland, as cases were confirmed in a commercial poultry flock of 14,000 birds near Markethill in County Armagh and a commercial duck flock of 22,000 in Coagh, County Tyrone, Sky News reported.


In November, South Korea reported an outbreak at a farm of around 770,000 poultry in Chungcheongbuk-do while Japan reported the first outbreak of its 2021 winter season at a poultry farm in its northeastern region. In Europe, a flock of 7,000 birds was struck with bird flu in Norway's Rogaland region.


Bird flu gave rise to "an unprecedented genetic variability of subtypes… in birds" this year, "creating an epidemiologically challenging landscape," OIE said on November 19. "H5N1, H5N3, H5N4, H5N5, H5N6 or H5N8 are the subtypes currently circulating in poultry and wild bird populations across the world."


Additionally, bird flu outbreaks are happening at a time when COVID-19 is still a prevalent problem in virtually all nations.


In some countries, HPAI could exacerbate existing difficulties caused by the pandemic— as is the case with South Africa where five HPAI-affected regions  "constitute around 60% of the total COVID-19 cases in South Africa," Olivier Uwishema et al says in the academic report, "Bird flu outbreak amidst COVID-19 pandemic in South Africa: Efforts and challenges at hand." With significant losses suffered due to COVID-19, the country's fight against new zoonoses "may not be as effective as necessary", as it is more focused towards the pandemic "and this may lead to neglect of the flu, which could also have another disastrous effect on the economy," Uwishema adds.


Other than COVID-19, researchers had also drawn a connection between HPAI and ASF concerning the impact suffered by livestock production sectors in some countries. ASF sparked a shift to backyard poultry farming in the Philippines, a development that unfortunately risks the potential of a bird flu pandemic, according to scientists.


"When you increase rapidly a species [poultry] in a new area where the condition of biosecurity is not very good, what happens? The risk of not only getting avian flu but many diseases is increased automatically," Vittorio Guberti of the Italian Environmental Research and Protection Institute said.


Focus on biosecurity (again)


The emergence of bird flu leads to the culling of countless farm birds, which results in tighter food supplies and price inflation. For a country hamstrung by economic adversities induced by COVID-19, this means a greater peril to its food security as the low-income segment of its population struggles to get food on the table.


Apart from this matter, the fact that climate change can increase the severity of disease outbreaks provides certain opponents one more argument to back claims of the (supposedly) unsustainable model of modern livestock and meat productions.


However, while the International Livestock Research Institute points out that 58% of 65 animal diseases — that were "identified as most important to poor people" — are "climate-sensitive" ("Climate and Livestock Disease: assessing the vulnerability of agricultural systems to livestock pests under climate change scenarios"), it also notes "littleinformation on the possible changes in distribution and impact (of diseases) under climate change scenarios." The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) also cautions "a tendency to oversimplify the mechanisms by which climate change affects disease transmission and animal health status," even as  "only a limited number of studies present validation of the direct effects of climate change itself" ("Climate change and animal health").


Today, it is more evident that industry players of global agriculture are expressing increasing support for more sustainable productions. Meanwhile, experts are of the view of establishing strong biosecurity, given the current and emerging threats of animal diseases.


After all, when livestock is not better protected, massive deaths and culling due to pestilences are the outcomes — and those to be followed by the production of additional animals to make up for animals lost. It is reasonable to infer from this development an unnecessary increase in livestock production's carbon emissions due to the lack of concrete actions.


Hence, now is the time for global agriculture to refocus on biosecurity and get it right.


- Terry Tan, eFeedLink

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