State of Science :: Commentaries
"Wild Bird Chase"
Author(s): Peter Melchett
February 12, 2007
All through the main bird migratory season last autumn, and during this winter, the government has been testing wild birds for avian flu. They found evidence of the low pathogenic variety of bird flu, which seems to have been present in wild bird populations for a long time, without causing any serious problems. But they didn't find a single case of the high pathogenic variety, H5N1, the type that turned up on Bernard Matthews' turkey farm just over a week ago. As someone else said, it always seemed a bit unlikely that the first wild bird for nearly a year to carry the deadly version of the virus should just happen to drop dead over Suffolk and fall into a ventilation shaft on one of Bernard's turkey factories.
Despite this, for most of last week the government's chief scientist, Sir David King, led the charge to blame wild birds. At least he was being consistent. From the start of the bird flu scare, he has seized on wild birds as the source of the infection. Last year he was also alone in the government in declaring that this could mean the end of free-range and organic chicken and turkey farming. To her credit, the chief vet at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), Debbie Reynolds, has adopted a more open-minded approach. Defra has worked well with representatives of free-range and organic poultry producers, agreeing protocols that would allow this type of farming to continue.
Sir David is admired by many environmentalists, me included, for his forthright leadership on climate change. It was him who, rightly, reminded Tony Blair that climate change is a greater threat than terrorism. But like his predecessor as chief scientist, Sir Bob May, he is a huge fan of genetic engineering. Maybe this is part of the job description for chief scientist in Tony Blair's government.
For over a year, there have been persistent suggestions that the bird flu epidemic was connected to the spread of industrial poultry production, particularly in south-east Asia. This is in contrast to the media's focus on migrating birds and small-scale, peasant farming, with small flocks of chickens kept in traditional ways. A report by Grain, Fowl Play, published early last year, set out the case in detail, but has been largely ignored. The outbreak at Bernard Matthews' factory, and the apparent link to Hungary, precisely fits the thesis put forward by Grain.
Up to the middle of last week, Sir David King was still blaming wild birds. Even when evidence for the Hungarian connection emerged, he barely blinked before announcing that even so, the virus could now have got into the UK's wild bird population, which therefore still posed a terrible threat.
Of course wild birds can spread the disease, but why this exclusive focus on wildlife? And why the rush to suggest that outdoor and organic production might have to end? I think the answer lies in the two very different and contradictory visions of the future of farming and food that are currently battling for supremacy. One view is held by Sir David, most of those running the UK's National Farmers' Union, in parts of Defra and in the Department for Overseas Development, and by Tony Blair himself. They see a hi-tech farming future, continuing the trend of the last 60 years, overwhelming natural processes with chemicals and new technology. For crops, this means genetically engineered seeds which produce crops that kill insects, are resistant to weed-killers, and deliver new benefits through higher yields or other enhanced characteristics. For animals, cloning and other advanced breeding techniques will produce creatures that produce ever more milk or meat, ever more quickly, and cheaply. "Bio-security" around these caged and weakened animals will prevent them succumbing to diseases and infections.
The alternative, organic vision sees us working with more natural processes, providing nutrients from crops by fixing nitrogen using the sun's energy and plants like clover. Growing a wide variety of crops, on mixed crop and livestock farms, provides fertility, weed control and natural resistance to disease. Farm animals mature more slowly and produce less milk. They live as natural a life as possible, eating natural diets, living outside or having access to fresh air and grass for most of their lives. This gives them positive health, allowing them to resist most disease threats. Needless to say, the advocates of this system, like myself, also think it provides tastier and healthier food, on top of the accepted, very significant environmental benefits.
While many say there must be room for both systems, the reality is that they take both farming and food in totally different directions. The hi-tech brigade assume world-wide trade in farm products and food is the norm. Organic farmers want as closed a system as possible, with most food produced locally. Hi-tech assumes we have the right to all-year-round availability of any food we want, usually processed. Organic assumes a move to a much more seasonal diet, generally fresh and unprocessed. Hi-tech assumes continued growth in cheap meat consumption, organic assumes we eat less, more expensive but higher quality meat.
Unfortunately, for the hi-tech brigade, things don't seem to be working out as they should. Genetically-engineered crops have yet to deliver any increase in yield. GM crops that are engineered to kill insects, like GM cotton, seem to suffer from unexpected side-effects - the cotton buds fall off the plant when they get too hot. GM plants resistant to weed-killers, and sprayed with chemicals that kill all other plants, have led to the rapid spread of resistant weeds. Overall, the use of weed-killers then increases, following an initial drop. The plants that kill insects have spawned resistant pests far faster than anyone predicted. And in India, sheep and goats died after eating GM crops.
For animals, the huge increase in output, for example in dairy cows, is leaving more and more of them incapable of managing more than one lactation. One-third of Britain's dairy cows are now killed after one period of milking, their bodies wrecked by the thousands of litres of milk that pour through them. With mad cow disease, foot-and-mouth and now bird flu, it is pretty clear that disease is a growing problem for industrial livestock farming, despite the claims that "bio-security" will lock nature and disease out. The rise in TB in cattle, widely blamed on badgers, seems better correlated with another aspect of industrial farming, namely the widespread movement of animals and their products around the country, and indeed around the world. This was revealed by the rapid spread of foot-and-mouth, and may now be responsible for the bird flu outbreak in Suffolk.
In this crisis, Defra ministers David Miliband and Ben Bradshaw seem more determined to keep open movement of meat than to protect us from imported diseases. Exactly the same political priority - keeping open the global meat trade - led Tony Blair (with the backing of big food businesses and the National Farmers' Union) to refuse to vaccinate during the foot and mouth epidemic - condemning tens of thousands of healthy animals to unnecessary deaths.
It must be hard for Sir David, as an advocate for "modern" hi-tech farming, based on global movement of meat and other food, driven forward by the miracles of genetic engineering and safeguarded by hi-tech bio-security, to have to admit that the very characteristics that define the system he admires are causing such terrible problems. Far easier to blame it on the (wild) birds.
Maybe one positive thing to come from this mess is that it has once again reminded people that they are being conned about where their food really comes from. Turkeys, or any other meat, from anywhere in the world, can be imported into the UK, tinkered around with a bit, and packed and labelled as "British". Agri-business knows that if they told the truth about the food they flog us, still less let us see the inside of one of those turkey factories, the chances are no one would ever buy the stuff again. Demand for organic food looks like receiving yet another boost.
Posted at: http://commentisfree.guardian.co.uk/peter_melchett/2007/02/why_was_the_governments_chief.html