This piece is contributed by Katja Jylkka, a doctoral student in English at the University of California, Davis. Jylkka is serving as a UC Food Observer intern this summer. She has taught at the high school and college level. Her research focuses on science and the environment in 19th century literature. Her work has been published in both academic venues and mainstream publications, including Civil Eats, HandPicked Nation and Food Politic.
In a historic outbreak of highly pathogenic avian influenza this spring, more than 48 million birds have died in 15 Midwestern states. Although the rates of new infection have seemed to plateau since the beginning of the outbreak earlier this spring because of the summer’s warmer temperatures, the outbreak already has the dubious honor of being the largest recorded in U.S. history.
While the nation’s large-scale poultry farms have strict biosecurity measures in place to prevent the spread of the disease, those same measures can take a devastating toll when infection strikes. Even if only a few chickens from a producer’s flock become infected, all of the birds within that facility need to be “depopulated” or humanely disposed of. It’s no wonder, then, when farms sometimes have millions of chickens to depopulate, that the nation’s supply of poultry and eggs has been severely depleted by the outbreak. The decrease in the number of egg-laying chickens already has caused egg prices to experience several jumps over the course of May and June. Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska and Wisconsin all have declared states of emergency.
Possible paths forward to avoid such catastrophic outbreaks are many, but unclear. One of these paths is through still greater security measures for particularly at-risk farms. Since the avian influenza virus is, for the most part, carried by wild waterfowl populations, farms that are near bodies of water and particularly those that lie along waterfowl migration flyways can be at greater risk. Dr. Maurice Pitesky, a specialist in poultry health and epidemiology with the UC Cooperative Extension and UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, is focusing on understanding these migration flyways and ways to warn farmers when their farms are most at risk from infection from these migrating birds. He explains that understanding migration flyways could be integral to mitigating impacts on poultry producers. For example, Pitesky explains that drought may play a role in the severity of outbreaks by eliminating bodies of water and concentrating waterfowl populations in fewer areas.
Others see the current outbreak as the natural outcome of an industrial poultry production system that is simply too big to be sustainable. One article for Mother Jones points out that this highly pathogenic virus seems to be affecting smaller, backyard chicken operations at a much smaller rate (this USA Today article estimated it at about 10 percent of total cases). If only on a mathematic level, there is less risk for these backyard producers, as they may only have 12 or 20 birds to dispose of if there is evidence of infection, rather than 3 million.
A Guardian article has suggested that commercially raised birds are, from birth, at a disadvantage to those raised in backyard-style operations. “Not only do commercial flocks share a limited gene pool, but some studies have suggested the industry’s vise-like focus on breast meat, in the case of broilers and turkeys, and eggs, in the case of hens, suppresses the birds’ immune systems, a theory known as resource allocation. When a bird is bred so that all its energy goes to the production of meat or eggs, ‘something has to give,’ says the (American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals’ Suzanne) McMillan. ‘The science indicates that a bird’s immunity goes down.’”
Still others see genetics as offering a way forward. Researchers from universities in Cambridge and Edinburgh announced in 2011 that they had produced genetically modified chickens that could still contract the avian influenza virus, but couldn’t pass it on to other birds. Although the birds are not commercially available yet, it is only one of many similar attempts to tackle disease from the inside out. In late 2013, for instance, UC Davis announced its partnership with USAID and two African universities in Tanzania and Ghana to form the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Genomics to Improve Poultry. Director David Bunn and project investigator Huaijun Zhou have begun working with African geneticists and stakeholders in Tanzania and Ghana to identify the genes linked to resistance of Newcastle disease in chickens. Scientists at Davis hope that, by finding the genes related to resistance for the disease, they could then identify specific chickens that have displayed a genetic capacity for Newcastle resistance through natural mutation. They could then use those chickens to breed a new line of birds that are better equipped to survive the disease. This process is known as “marker assisted selection” (MAS): by finding the genetic “markers” for the trait that they want (in this case disease resistance) scientists can, ideally, isolate individuals to breed for that trait.
At this point, there are still too many unknowns to envision a clear way forward for poultry production in the United States. As Pitesky said, “There is no silver bullet,” no one solution that will allow for the continuation of poultry production the way it works now. But, as stakeholders explore various solutions, they are also keeping an eye on the fall, when temperatures cool and some experts are already predicting a resurgence of outbreaks.
The work of Pitesky is part of the University of California’s Global Food Initiative, which seeks to address one of the most compelling issues of our time: how to sustainably and nutritiously feed a growing world population.