Bird flu is making global headlines. As an H5N1 outbreak ravages the U.S. poultry industry and egg prices reach record highs, scientists are ringing alarm bells that the virus could soon enter a new, more dangerous phase of its evolution. Recent evidence from a mink farm in Spain and the death of a young girl in Cambodia have governments scrambling to prepare for the possibility that bird flu becomes a human pandemic.
Last week the UK Health Security Agency announced it will be looking into “the disease’s genetic mutations to reveal data about the increased risk to human health from avian flu.” The U.S. government has already stockpiled egg-based vaccines for avian flu, and the country has developed a secret chicken stockpile in undisclosed locations across the U.S. in case we need to make egg-based vaccines quickly—such as during a flu pandemic.
There’s broad consensus among scientists and public health officials that bird flu poses a real threat of becoming a human pandemic. Despite that consensus, most of the public discourse has been limited to how we might prepare for an eventual spillover event. Preparation seems prudent, but what about prevention? Why aren’t we asking the simple question: “What would it take to reduce the pandemic risk caused by poultry farming?”
I suspect the reason this question doesn’t get asked more often is because Big Meat would resist any of the changes that would reduce the risk of a pandemic. That should not deter our advocacy for healthier agriculture systems; we have recent precedent of countries shutting down entire animal agriculture industries because they posed too great a risk to public health.
During the early phases of COVID-19, it became clear that the virus was mutating on mink farms. Some countries took steps to shut down their mink industries rather than risk a more deadly outbreak. While chicken is seen as a more indispensable commodity than mink fur, societies could look carefully at the aspects of poultry farming that pose the greatest risks and outlaw or ban those practices.
As Farm Forward has previously written, industrial poultry farming poses a unique risk because of its scale, density, geographic distribution, and the genetic uniformity of the animals. To prevent a bird flu pandemic, world governments should take steps to prohibit the specific practices of the industry that pose the greatest risks.
Preventing the next pandemic
To prevent bird flu from becoming a human pandemic, governments and international bodies like the World Health Organization (WHO) have to look at the aspects of the poultry industry that make it such a unique public health threat. The WHO recently began negotiating a global pandemic accord—which in its first draft failed to mention animal agriculture as the likely source of the next pandemic. Global and national health organizations including the CDC and the WHO recognize that industrial poultry farming poses a significant pandemic risk, so their failure to encourage countries to take steps to mitigate that risk is particularly frustrating. It seems crazy to have to say this, but public health agencies must be willing to name and address the biggest threats to public health.
We don’t have to wait for national governments and public health agencies to act. We can take steps to protect ourselves from the next pandemic, including switching to more humane alternatives, removing animal products from supply chains, and supporting policies that would phase out industrial scale animal farming. We need to change the way we eat and farm—because the world isn’t prepared for the next pandemic.