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The Biosecurity Myth That Is Destroying Small Farming

By Lucile Leclair

Chen Yun’s pigs stopped eating, then developed a fever. Within a week, all 10,000 on his farm in Jiangxi, in southeast China, had died of African swine fever (ASF). In 2018-19 the virus affected every province and led to the slaughter of half the country’s pigs. The outbreak spread from China to Southeast Asia; the virus, already present in central Europe, reached Belgium in 2018. France and other European nations remain braced for its possible arrival. ASF, which was identified over a century ago, does not infect humans but mortality can be up to 100% among pigs.

To tackle the epidemic, China is favouring farms with at least 500 pigs, following the biosecurity precept that bigger is better. ‘Family farms will tend to disappear in favour of industrial production,’ said Jian Huang, an expert at China’s national pig institute. China is following health advice from international bodies for epizootic diseases (epidemics that affect animals), said Wantanee Kalpravidh, an animal health expert at the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO); farms are classified according to their presumed risk of infection, from sector 1, deemed to have the highest level of biosecurity, to sector 4, with the lowest.

The underlying idea is that the spread of viruses is limited when animals are reared in closed buildings or behind fences that prevent contact with wild species that could transmit pathogens, and livestock eat commercially produced feed with sanitary certification rather than feed grown on the farm. Biosecurity regulations govern not only the farm’s hygiene regime (hand-washing, clothing changes before entering buildings, disinfection of vehicles) but the technical and business orientation of the operation. And that raises questions.

The biosecurity approach, which standardises and compartmentalises production methods, fails to take account of the risk created by industrial-scale livestock rearing in confined spaces. Large-scale units are presented as the solution to a problem they helped create. While the destruction of nature and wild habitats, often for industrial purposes, has led to the transmission of new viruses, many studies have shown the acceleration of epizootic diseases also owes much to the industrialisation of livestock farming.

In Thailand, data collected in 2004 indicated that ‘the odds of H5N1 [bird flu] outbreaks and infections were significantly higher in large-scale commercial poultry operations as compared with backyard flocks’. In industrial farming, poor genetic diversity and widespread use of preventative treatments depress immunity to disease, while the geographic concentration of livestock, dense stocking of animals and increased distances they are transported encourage the spread of pathogens.

The recent ASF outbreak is not unique. In the past 30 years, there has been a series of crises in pig breeding: diarrhoea epidemics (scours), dysgenesis (organ malformations) and respiratory syndrome, and H1N1 flu. Bovine TB has reappeared on cattle farms; poultry breeders have encountered new, highly infectious strains of H5N1 flu; and sheep farms have faced a resurgence of the bluetongue virus. According to the Paris-based World Organisation for Animal Health (established in 1924 as the Office International des Épizooties and still referred to as the OIE), the number of livestock epidemics has almost tripled in the past 15 years. This is a danger not only to animals, but also to humans, as some diseases can cross species, notably H5N1 flu, though instances are rarer than once feared.

The FAO’s Kalpravidh said, ‘Producers have to ask themselves, “How many kilos of chicken can I produce? How many eggs?” They have to up production to make more profit and use the surplus revenue to invest in biosecurity.’ This presumption in favour of intensive agriculture worldwide is a form of industrialisation; ‘biosecurity’ is simply a more palatable term for it, making it the unchallengeable frame of reference for a particular social and economic model. And no farm on the planet is exempt.

The bulletin of the French Veterinary Academy, acknowledging the decree from the ministry of agriculture of 8 February 2016, noted, ‘Biosecurity measures became obligatory for poultry farmers with the avian flu of 2015-16. In future, all sectors, whether extensive or intensive, will have to incorporate biosecurity measures.’ It conceded that ways of integrating such measures with transhumance (the seasonal movement of livestock) ‘are yet to be devised’.

Farmers raising animals free-range or for local markets are struggling to survive. Their livestock are subject to the same biosecurity regulations, though they are less exposed to contamination because of less dense stocking and less contact with the outside world. Since 2020, rules in the pork sector have required a 1.3m fence around fields and a visit every two months from an outside contractor to control insects and rats. Anne-Marie Leborgne, a pig breeder in Haute-Garonne, realised that ‘to make a profit after meeting the biosecurity rules, I’d have to raise my prices.’ Just one pig in 20 in France is outdoor-reared. Leborgne, 39, was selling 2,000kg of organic pork a year and working part-time at the school in her village south of Toulouse. Two months after biosecurity training from the local chamber of agriculture, she decided to get out of pig-rearing: ‘I can’t see myself selling many pork chops at €18 a kilo.’

To support biosecurity measures, the regional council in southwest France and the EU offer grants that cover 30% of the cost of materials. But that’s not enough, according to Benoît and Isabelle Dubois, mountain farmers in their 60s rearing pigs on 90 hectares near Brie in the Ariège department. They estimate that, excluding their time and upkeep costs, they would have to spend €400,000 to meet biosecurity standards, more than they have made in 30 years of farming. ‘After we’ve paid our bills, we’re left with €500 each month for us both to live on. Putting up fences in such steep, rocky terrain would be tough.’ They continue to farm on this arid land, but suspect they will be the last to raise pigs here. They don’t offer student work placements as they think it would be unfair to encourage young people to go into a business that’s ‘impossible to make work’.

While free-range operations struggle to comply with biosecurity measures, the economy still works for big producers. During health crises, some producers are exempt from movement restrictions. Only sector 1 operations that comply with security measures and checks can obtain a permit that grants them ‘compartment’ status, defined by the OIE as ‘one or more establishments under a common biosecurity management system containing an animal sub-population with a distinct health status with respect to a specific disease for which required surveillance, control and biosecurity measures have been applied for the purpose of international trade’. All 182 OIE members approved the compartmentalisation principle in 2004, and it later became law in Chile, the US, UK, China, Australia and elsewhere. In February 2006 France issued a decree that favoured big producers.

One such company is France Poultry, a Brittany-based producer formerly known as Doux, which gained compartment status for its 120 affiliated farms in 2017. It slaughters 340,000 birds daily and ships 70-80 containers a week from the port of Brest, 93% for export. The poultry is reared in 35,000-bird units, each bird allotted less space than a sheet of A4 paper. The units belong to subcontractors who work exclusively for France Poultry, complying with strict biosecurity specifications, which, according to CEO François Le Fort, makes them ‘sanitary bubbles’.

But a 2018 study shows that frequent contact between farms in the same compartment creates significant opportunity for virus transmission in a bird flu outbreak. Even if compartmentalisation prevents contamination from wild animals, there are other vectors of disease, such as the staff, air, water and feed. Although all these transmission routes are covered by strict regulations, daily working practices often fall short. Manon Racicot of the University of Montreal’s department of epidemiology selected eight producers in consultation with Quebec’s poultry-breeding associations, and studied how they applied biosecurity protocols. She found 44 repeated mistakes that invalidated claims of biosecurity, including stocking density, confusion between clean and contaminated areas, failure to observe hygiene standards, and employees’ poor understanding of sanitary principles. Sanitary bubbles are a myth.

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