We seem to have escaped one potential side-effect of the Bernard Matthews bird flu. The first news of the out break focussed on wild birds as the carriers of the disease. After a few days, in which it bcame obvious that importing turkeys from an area hit by bird flu was probably not wholly unconnected, wild birds were temporarily off the hook. For how long?
On 17th February, the BBC had the grace to recover some of its credibility on the issue by running an interview/article by Dr Leon Bennun, of BirdLife International. He argues that wild birds are likely to get blamed and that threatened species are likely to be culled or be subject to deliberate destruction of their habitats. However, he argues that bird flu infections in wild birds are limited and unlikely to spread to humans. He argues that the global poultry industry is the most likely vector of the disease.
It may also be time to take a long, hard look at the way the world feeds itself, and to decide whether the price paid for modern farming in terms of risks to human health and the Earth’s biodiversity is too high.
OK, I have to declare a vested interest here. I am a long time vegetarian (though I can’t claim any moral high ground because I eat milk and eggs.) I can’t see why there is such a necessity for everyone to have access to ultra-cheap although taste-free chicken and turkey. Taking up a morality in food theme that I already did to death a few weeks ago, I can’t understand how we have become so confused that we talk about “being good” when we mean passing up an extra biscuit but believeg we have no responsibility for the conditions in which our meat is produced.
These poultry are reared in conditions that defy belief. They are stuffed in their thousands into barns where their “lives” must make a mockery of the term. The scale of the Bernard Matthews operation is breathtaking. When the news broke, the numbers of turkeys reported Killed was a lot more than I would have believed there could be in the whole country. And they were in a handful of barns. Is it any surprise that these conditions give rise to diseases.
A few hundred workers were laid off by Bernard Matthews today, with more job losses likely if the public don’t forget their temporary revulsion. The government scientists are doing their best to reassure us. The reassurances have even been rephrased from the original self-contradictory message last week, which was that there was no chance that bird flu could get into the food chain but make sure you cook all poultry thoroughly.
We are now so squeamish compared to people of a couple of generations ago. We don’t even buy poultry if it can be visibly distinguished from Quorn. This makes it much easier for us to ignore what goes on to bring that prepackaged and blamelessly sterile-looking product to the supermarket.
And what goes on is much more repellent than killing creatures to eat, which is what people have done for our entire history. It first involved hunting wild creatures (clearly the best bet from the creatures’ point of view.) Then it involved capturing them and keeping them confined in a simulation of their natural environment until we wanted to kill them (next best bet, although even this is starting to threaten the ecology of the planet as more and more of us need feeding and more and more forest is burned for cattle.) But, what about keeping animals indoors in terrifying and insanitary conditions and feeding them wholly unnatural foods, including the ground-up brains of their own species (does anyone remember BSE?).
There are laws of cause and effect. We are indeed animals ourselves but we somehow believe we can escape the natural laws that seem to govern ecosystems. Species that grow too numerous for their environment and start disturbing its balance too drastically are pretty likely to become extinct. We are turning our planet into a potential hellhole for ourselves.
But, bizarrely, as Leon Bennun points out, we don’t question the global meat industry. We turn on the few escapees from our destructiveness and blame them, failing to understand the role they play in keeping the ecosystem going. I assume this is because wild birds don’t employ people. They don’t pay taxes.
The massive “agricultural” companies employ a fair number of people. Many more people would be employed if the law compelled turkey and chicken “farmers” to rear their poultry using free range methods. It might cost a little more for poultry, but then, it might actually taste of something, so value for money would be about the same. It would surely be safer. The bird flu outbreaks that affected humans in the far east did involve small producers. However, they were localised in their effects. Can anyone even begin to imagine the scale of the effects of an outbreak that could infect humans if it originated in one of these monster turkey/chicken production units?