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.”
Virtually All Agricultural Programs Subsidize CAFOs
According to Dr. Ikerd, virtually every program that has come out of the USDA during his career has in one way or another subsidized specialized, standardized, and consolidated production. Consumers ultimately pay the cost of the risks inherent with these types of operations. We also pay for subsidized credit that allows farmers to expand their operations.
“I think it was all intended well. When I was out here talking to farmers about specialized, standardized, “get bigger or get out,” I really thought it was for the basic good of the consuming public, because what we were told, and what we believed, was that we were going to make good, safe, and wholesome food affordable for everyone. We were going to bring down the cost of agriculture production. It would bring down food costs to the point where everyone could have access to enough wholesome foods to support a healthy, active lifestyle. But we didn’t do that.”
Today, we have a higher percentage of people who are food insecure or go hungry in the US than we had in the 1960s, before widespread industrialization started. About 15 percent of Americans are now classified as being food insecure. More than 20 percent of American children live in food insecure homes.
So while the industrialization of agriculture lowered production costs, and to some extent made certain foods (read processed foods) less expensive, the system has completely failed to secure food for all. Forty percent of the US corn crop in the last several years has in fact gone toward producing ethanol rather than producing food for hungry people.
As Dr. Ikerd notes, “that’s the part of that industrial agricultural system that’s driven by the economic bottom line — the system I promoted. I look back now and I see the flaws in that system, but it took me a while to realize that not only was this system not good for the animals, for the farmers, for the land, and for the whole community; it wasn’t even good for consumers. The problems we’re creating pose real public health risks for the consumer.”
Diversification and Decentralization Is the Solution
Sustainable agriculture is the answer to these and many other related problems. While it may not be the easiest solution, implementation wise, it’s the best and most logical solution in the long term. Sustainable agriculture balances the need to produce food to be economically viable and efficient with a need to take care of the land, and support rural communities and society as a whole.
Dr. Ikerd became involved in the sustainable agriculture movement in the late 1980s, the most visible part of which is the growth of organic food production. In terms of sales, organic foods grew at a rate of 20 percent per year during the 1990s, up to the Great Recession of 2008.
Today, organic food sales are growing at a rate of more than 10 percent annually, yet as a whole, it still represents less than five percent of the total food sales. More recently, the local food movement has been the most dramatic development in the food economy. There’s been a quadrupling of the number of farmers’ markets in the last 20 years, and CSAs have grown from practically nothing to about 12,000 to 14,000.
“I think we’re in the process of creating a fundamentally new and different food system,” Dr. Ikerd says. Part of this is the creation of local food networks the USDA calls “food hubs.” At present, there are more than 300 food hubs across the US, where farmers sell to local customers.
“I think what we’re seeing here is the evolution of the change in the food system. I really think that it’s inevitable, because this industrial food system is simply not sustainable. It’s not ecologically sound. It’s not socially responsible. And over the long run, it can’t be economically viable,” he says.
Some people question whether sustainable or organic agriculture would be economically viable, or whether that might make food insecurity even worse by raising food prices too high. According to Dr. Ikerd, while transitioning over to a more sustainable type of food system may eventually result in farm cost increases of eight to 12 percent, the actual price you pay for the food would only rise about two percent.
“What we have to look at here is that currently, only about 20 percent of what we pay for food at the grocery store is at the farm level. In other words, you can have a significant increase in the cost of production at the farm level withouthaving a major impact on the consumer level. For example, it would cost you 10 percent more to produce [sustainable food] at the farm level, and the farm level is only 20 percent of the total value. That’s only a two percent increase in [retail] food cost.
We need to keep in mind that we’re not talking about something that’s totally out of the realm of possibility here. We can certainly raise birds in a competitive way in the smaller operations. How much smaller do we have to get in order to get away from the problems? I think part of it is bringing poultry into a more diverse operation that has other operations on the same farm.
Other things are going on so you don’t end up with mountains of poultry manure that you have to get rid of. You end up with poultry manure that’s just adequate to fertilize your pasture where you’re raising beef cattle on grass, for example. Or you’re raising hogs on pasture. Or you’re growing other kinds of crops. We need to move to more diversified operation.”
Agroecology and Other Sustainable Agriculture Systems
Contrary to popular belief, around 70 percent of the global population is fed by food produced by small independent farms operating at subsistence level, not by industrial agriculture. On those small independent farms, production can be doubled, tripled, or even quadrupled, without replicating an industrial system. The most popular system right now, according to Dr. Ikerd, is called agroecology.
It’s a diversified farming system where you build up the fertility of the soil, and you manage crops and livestock in an integrative system. This not only allows you to maintain the fertility of the soil, it also helps you manage pests and curtail diseases. Diversification inherently means reduced risk across the board. Permacultures and biodynamic farming are also popping up, especially in Eastern countries. In China and Japan, they call it nature farming. All of these are different approaches that fall under sustainable agriculture.