It’s been eight years since bird flu was a concern in the United States, but now it’s back again, and it’s particularly integrated into confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs).
Dr. John Ikerd, who has a PhD in Agricultural Economics, is an industrial agriculture insider, making him a rare voice to speak out against the conventional model.
He grew up on a dairy farm, and also gained experience working for Wilson & Co. — at that time, the fourth largest meat packing company in the country — and Kansas City stockyards.
After obtaining his PhD, he worked as an extension livestock marketing specialist and an agricultural economist, spending the first 15 years of his academic career promoting industrial agriculture, which includes large-scale CAFO’s.
Financial Crisis Revealed Fundamental Flaws in Big Ag Model
It wasn’t until the financial crisis hit farmers in the 1980s that he began to reconsider what he’d been taught, and what he’d been teaching farmers.
As it turned out, the farmers who were hit the hardest by the recession were the ones who had diligently followed the advice of Dr. Ikerd and other industry experts.
“‘Get big or get out’ was this idea of industrialization to get larger and larger. Many farmers followed our advice during the 1970s [and] borrowed heavily in order to expand their operations,” Dr. Ikerd says.
“When the 1980s came along, farmers were caught with huge debts at record-high interest rates, and they simply couldn’t pay off the loans. By that time, I’d moved to the University of Georgia, and I was head of the Department of Extension Agricultural Economics.
It was the responsibility of my department to go out and work with these farmers who were losing their farms. We tried to figure out some way they could make the farm profitable; if not profitable, then maybe they could get out of agriculture while they still had some equity left.
Or at least we tried to talk them out of killing themselves… There were more than a few farm suicides around the country among the farmers faced with the prospect of losing their farms. It was a pretty intense situation…
I said, ‘Look, there’s something fundamentally wrong with this. I didn’t get all this education and all this experience, so that I could create a system where these farmers would end up going broke.'”
He began to realize that in order for some farmers to continue to grow and get increasingly bigger, it meant that other farmers had to be forced out of business, and this had a number of unrecognized consequences.
“I said, ‘Look, that kind of agriculture is not good for farmers.’ Then, I began to look around, and I could see that it wasn’t good for the rural communities that depended upon those farms.
There are places in North Missouri, for example, that lost 20 percent of their total county population during those periods of time because the family farmers couldn’t make a living on the land, and those rural communities depended on those family farmers for businesses.”
Now, with the advent of an increasing number of serious disease pandemics, the flaws of the “bigger is better” model has become even more evident…
How CAFOs Promote Disease Epidemics
The first bird flu pandemic was launched upon the American public in 2005, with repeats in 2006, 2007, and again in 2008, followed by the threat of a swine flu pandemic in 2009. I actually wrote a book about the initial bird flu scare, which became a New York Times bestseller, called The Great Bird Flu Hoax.
At one time, they warned two million people could potentially die from this disease. Yet to this day, I’m not aware of anyone in the US ever dying from bird flu. It has however become a serious threat to CAFOs.
“The reason I was giving you that background is I think what we’re seeing right now is inherent within this system of agricultural production,” Dr. Ikerd says. “What we’re seeing in terms of the bird flu is a consequence of concentrating hundreds of thousands of birds in these [space-wise] small operations.”
Prior to CAFOs, when a virus would emerge, some small farms would lose part or all of their flock, but the numbers would be limited. It wouldn’t turn into a massive epidemic where millions of birds are affected and the disease spreads like wildfire across the entire country.
“The background in terms of the industrialization of agriculture, in my opinion, is very directly related to what we’re talking about here in terms of the spread of the bird flu,” Dr. Ikerd says.
“In 2013 and 2014, we had the Porcine Epidemic Diarrhea virus (PEDv). Seven million pigs dead in that case, and that virus spread through these large-scale confined animal feeding operations in much the same way we saw with the bird flu.
[Then there’s] the honeybee colony collapse… I can tell you what the problem is… it’s the industrialization of the pollination industry… packing hives up on trailer trucks and hauling them across the country.
It’s the specialization, standardization, and consolidation into larger and larger units. That’s the reason we’re having these outbreaks and will continue to have these outbreaks.”
How CAFOs Profit from Livestock Pandemics
The bird flu reemerged with a vengeance in CAFOs last year. In Iowa, 70 different CAFOs lost a total of 29 million chickens, turkeys, and ducks. Minnesota lost 8.3 million birds, mostly turkeys. The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) estimates a total of 45 million birds were lost, with an economic impact totaling $1 billion.
“The USDA came in to prop up these industrial operations with the allocation of 413 million dollars, [which is] what I call the bail-out fee for the failed CAFO industry. That would be about nine dollars per bird of taxpayers’ money to subsidize [CAFOs].
Basically, we’re subsidizing these specialized operations. We know there’s inherent risk when you go to the specialization and standardization. Diversity is the means by which we manage risk in agriculture, in business, or anywhere else.
But when you go to these specialized operations, you’re taking away the diversity, and inherently, you’re involved in a much riskier operation when you’re just producing one commodity or one phase of production like egg production. We’re paying the cost of the increased risk that’s associated with the specialization of these large operations.”
During the PEDv pandemic, an estimated seven million pigs were lost, and the economic impact was estimated at $350 million. In that case, the US government allocated $11 million dollars to cover CAFO losses. However, the price of pork also went up, so the CAFOs actually profited from the pandemic and the loss of all these pigs.
“This is inherent within this system. That’s the point I’m getting at,” Dr. Ikerd says. “The bird flu outbreak is just a symptom of a much larger problem that goes across pigs, cattle, honeybees, and crops. We have a failed system of agriculture production in this country.”