By Mike Archer. Something has to change in the way we husband poultry in BC. Even those in the industry have to realize by now the strategy of placing the almost the entire BC industry within a 40-sq-km geographic area in the Fraser Valley is not working.
The fact that, almost like clockwork, the industry is hit by an Avian Flu epidemic every three or four years has to raise alarm bells about their strategy.
MacLeans Magazine described the current crisis thus: “While bad news for birds, the pathogenic strain causes only mild symptoms in humans. People who have close contact with infected animals may develop irritated eyes and mild respiratory illness. It doesn’t seem to spread from person to person, but the flu is notorious for mutating rapidly.”
Building chicken and turkey factories in close proximity of one another; employing gigantic fans to empty the acrid atmosphere from the barns; and relying on the bio-hazard regulations which have evolved through the increasingly regular epidemics which break out, has simply not proven to be a safe, workable means of taking these animals from birth to abattoir.
When one factors in the fact that Canadian taxpayers bail the industry out with each disaster by compensating farmers for each animal they destroy in order to protect the rest of the flock the whole thing becomes almost farcical.
In terms of complaints about the treatment of animals, while Valley residents are probably most familiar with the recent case of the Chilliwack Cattle Company, owned by the Kooyman family , and the disturbing cruelty witnessed and filmed by animal rights activists, complaints about the general effects of factory farming on animals have gone under-reported, certainly in the Fraser Valley.
In March 2013 it was announced that Australia’s largest supermarket chain, Coles, will as of January 1, 205, stop selling company branded pork and eggs from animals kept in factory farms. It will have a major impact on the industry and some have argued it is the first sign that the days of factory farming are over.
Industrialization Of Livestock Farming
Peter Fricker of the Vancouver Humane Society wrote about the rise of factory farming in the Fraser Valley over the last 15 years in the Vancouver Sun Tuesday, “Now, turkeys and broiler chickens (raised for meat) are confined in giant barns containing thousands of birds, with densities as high as 20 birds per square metre, all eating, sleeping and defecating in the same barn.
The numbers and density of modern poultry operations provide perfect conditions for the spread of viruses. Worst of all, they create opportunities for a low-pathogenic virus to become high-pathogenic, as a virus infecting a crowded barn of thousands of birds has a greater chance to mutate into a more virulent form. As Earl Brown, a University of Ottawa microbiology professor specializing in flu virus evolution, has stated: “It is high-density chicken farming that gives rise to high-virulent influenza viruses.”
“It is not only the density within the Fraser Valley’s poultry barns that is a problem, it’s also the number of barns within the valley. In 2004, an official with the B.C. agriculture ministry advised that the best way to protect the poultry industry from another avian flu outbreak was to move millions of birds out of the densely packed industry in the valley. In an email obtained by media he said: “The B.C. poultry industry needs to investigate a risk-management strategy to move to locations outside the Fraser Valley.” This has not happened, leaving greater risk of farm-to-farm transmission of viruses.”
Farming’s Impact On The Environment
The other under-reported story about factory farming in the Fraser Valley is that industrial farming is the overwhelming cause of the ‘white haze’ which politicians like Chilliwack Mayor Sharon Gaetz and Abbotsford Councillor Patricia Ross love to blame on Vancouver.
“The poultry industry alone produces hundreds of thousands of cubic yards of excess manure along with significant levels of ammonia, contributing to air and water pollution in the region. Globally, livestock production is estimated to contribute 14.5 per cent of all human-caused greenhouse gases, more than all forms of transportation combined,” according to Fricker.
The amount of land in the Agricultural Land Reserve which is taken up, not by traditional farming but by enormous industrial factory farms is significant; the environmental and financial costs borne by the rest of the community are high; the humanity of the husbandry practices is questionable and the number of winners from the system as it currently exists are very small – namely the individual factory farm owners.
While local media in the Fraser Valley has a track record of protecting the industry, local politicians, and the agricultural sector, it is time for an open honest and educated discussion about the viability of this whole industry.
With this year’s outbreak it has become quite clear that, whatever containment efforts the industry has developed, the best it can do is mitigate and reduce the impacts of a constant and predictable series of disasters, the costs of which are borne by their friends and neighbours.
In a conservative part of the country, where a significant part of the power structure claims to believe in the primacy of the market in weeding out winners from losers, the willingness of our local agricultural industrialists to base their business model on the socialist idea that they should be regularly bailed out for their poor decisions stands out as a rather incongruous position.
The Fraser Valley’s factory farmers are going to have to come up with something better than relying on the rest of us to pay for the risks of the business model they themselves have created. Taxpayers will likely be understanding if the industry wants time to downsize and re-work its business model so that it presents less of a drain on society, but the industry should not squander this opportunity to actually talk with the community about its troubles.
The financial institutions which fund the industry would certainly not continue to do so without the guarantee of salvation provided the average taxpayer. Since we are being asked to pay for their mistakes, don’t we have a right to a say in the way they run their businesses?