The avian flu is an alarm bell for all of us

As the H5N2 avian flu sweeps through Wisconsin, we have had a flood of customers in the store who want to talk about it. They include experienced chicken keepers and the merely curious. And we’ve had conversations with WMTV-15 and Rob Schultz of the Wisconsin State Journal.

All of the talk so far has been about where H5N2 comes from (mostly migratory waterfowl) and how to keep your flock safe. But, as Rob Schultz’s story pointed out, the avian flu isn’t a health crisis for people, since it can’t be transmitted – or hasn’t been so far. And it’s not even a health crisis for poultry as a whole. But it has the potential to become an economic crisis for the farmers and producers who stand to lose hundreds of thousands of turkeys and chickens.

Which brings us pretty quickly to the Devil’s bargain of modern agriculture – the immense concentration of genetically nearly identical birds, cattle, hogs, grains and nearly every other thing we raise for food and our reliance on monoculture, factory farms, synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, and a constant flow of antibiotics - to supply our needs.

In that sense, the H5N2 flu is a reminder that, in the long run, backyard flocks aren’t the problem; they’re part of the solution.

Nobody is suggesting that backyard chickens are in any position to feed the nation. The USA consumes 9 billion chickens and 50 billion eggs each year. The vast majority are produced by about 30,000 farms operating under contract to approximately 40 major national poultry companies.

However, keeping backyard chickens does help show us a different path to food sustainability. The backyard poultry movement helps to enrich and maintain genetic diversity among chickens. Who knows when a gene from a heritage hen may come to the rescue of the entire poultry industry?

The second reason is that, once we become aware that the meat we eat comes from individual animals, not just a Styrofoam package in the supermarket, we quickly become more careful about what we eat and how much. Do we really need to consume 30 chickens (83.6 pounds) each year for every man, woman and child in the country? Maybe we could – and should – eat less meat.

We don’t need to explain the advantages of sustainable agriculture to our CLUCK blog readers. As the movie Food, Inc. graphically shows, we would be better off for many reason if we could reduce our reliance on factory farming.

But we do want to make the point that, when you read about the avian flu, or discuss it with your friends, the real significance of the news is not just about this isolated outbreak of a particular virus, nor is it just about taking biosecurity precautions. H5N2 is rather an alarm bell ringing at the center of our food system.

To misquote John Donne, it’s ringing for us. We should listen.