Outbreaks and the Political Economy of Speed: Britain, Bird flu and the Treadmill of Production

Brandon M.S. Rochester

Bird Flu is back in Britain. And it is the worst it has ever been. In September, the EFSA reported that within poultry operations, there were “2,467 outbreaks” across Europe since June. This eclipses the scale of the record-breaking outbreaks from the previous year, exhibiting a quintupled increase. For instance, in 2021, there were 21 H5N1 outbreaks in the UK . However, since October 2021, there have been 248. Since October 2022, there have been 114, showcasing the severity of the influenza inflation. As winter approaches, this number looks to increase.  

(Edit: Since the initial write up of this blog, the winter predictions have proved correct; there have been 162 cases as of the 13th of January 2023, since the 1st of October 2022 within the UK).

This record-setting surge in emergence is not limited to Europe; it represents a widespread viral vogue across the globe, with cases skyrocketing everywhere. In fact, for the first time, H5N1 has globalised, crossing the Atlantic, causing outbreaks in the Americas. Importantly, this could be more preponderant than it is currently assumed, as avian influenzas (AI) can often evade detection. This is disquieting due to the harms these viruses carry, with immediate impacts on birds, humans, and the economy. Most worrisome, however, is the potential for these viruses to fester, reassort and grow into vicious pandemics. 

Figure 1: Prevalence of high pathogenic bird flu in the UK.

The Impacts of Outbreaks

The impact is mostly felt by non-human animals. According to the CDC, H5N1 is highly contagious and deadly amongst birds, particularly poultry. In corroboration, DEFRA  suggests that the current strain poses an extreme risk of exposure to poultry. Birds who are exposed to H5N1 typically die. However, individuals before death and those who survive, experience diarrhoea, respiratory distress, and cranial swelling.  

Mitigation efforts cause further harm. For example, the ‘flockdown’, which locks birds indoors, breeds welfare issues, such as increased distress. Furthermore, the most employed method for the mass killing of birds is containerised gassing, which requires birds to be hand-caught and forcibly transferred into containers. This transferring causes injuries and distress before being suffocated en masse. Once in the containers, unwitting suffocation occurs due to high stocking densities (SD). Moreover, gaseous methods are not immediately effective, and birds therefore suffer convulsions and asphyxiation whilst conscious. During this current epidemic, there have been 47.7 million ‘culling’s’ with many more on the way. Therefore, this epidemic has been nothing short of a perdition for the bird population. Future mitigation efforts need to avoid such harm by considering grass-root solutions.  

Accompanying the insurgence of HPAI’s, are the costs to people’s livelihoods, trade, and economic stability. According to Professor of Microbiology, Mark Fielder, due to the current strain’s ubiquity, caused by its fierce transmissibility, the economy and Christmas food supply could be unsettled. Van Asseldonk et al., suggest that the economic impact can be divided into “direct losses” and “consequential losses”. Direct losses consist of biosecurity costs, the mass killing of birds and the related interruption to business-as-usual. For example, as large numbers of birds are culled within the pretext of mitigation, farmers experience economic erosion. Despite compensations, farmers will still be worse-off and the compensation schemes, in fact, often lead to greater complacency in biosecurity measures, suggesting that this approach may just be papering over the cracks. Although H5N1 may become endemic in Europe, according to Burns et al., recurrent bird-bird outbreaks within high-income countries, engenders small GDP concerns. However, this impact is more acute when human-human pandemics emanate, with the economic effect being commensurate to virulence and spread. Despite this, the current threat of the epidemic is regarded as low for human health, so there seems to be little reason for concern that severe pandemics would emerge and cause unendurable human-health and economic externalities. Or so it may seem.  

Pandemic Potential

Disease is in fashion. The current rate of emergent infectious disease (EID) is unprecedented and will only worsen. Unlike any time beforehand, there has been a novel EID every year for the past 30. These diseases pose and cause enormous harm to human health, mental health and the economy. Most EIDs come from animals; since 1940, 60% of the 400 EIDs were zoonotic, including 75% of those within the last 30 years. Nonetheless, “there is no storm like [avian]influenza”. Within the last 500 years, 15 epidemics/pandemics have been of avian origin, and this is increasing. For instance, during the 20th century, there were three pandemics with avian heritage. These were the 1918, 1957 and the 1967 pandemics, of which cumulatively killed 55 million people. Thus, the current rise in HPAI outbreaks may therefore be a prognostication of a future pandemic.  

The Next Pandemic

The current outbreaks pose a minimal risk for the general population. However, the EFSA admits that the rise in mammalian transmissions and the current and potential genetic reassortment of the current outbreaks, means that humans are not exempt from danger. H5N1, despite being inefficient at human transmission, could yet, because of its adaptability and recent mammalian transmissions, develop the requisite mutations to turn it into the next pandemic. As consumption and industrialised production of poultry will steeply inflate, more so than any other meat, the risk of this increases. This is because the rise of EID and HPAI has been the result of increased consumption and industrialised production. This leads Dr Michael Greger to predict that the next major pandemic will likely be of avian origin, predicated on our farming practices, which are embedded in a ‘political economy of speed’. 

The political economy of speed and its ethos has led to the industrialisation of farming and the acceleration of its methods. The Treadmill of Production is an extra-Marxist theory of environmental sociology. It suggests that neo-liberal capitalist societies are embedded within an “ideology of growth”; an insatiable inclination towards capital reproduction. This desire has led to industrialised and economised regimes of production that seek to maximise production and minimise costs through technological and technical advances. This ethos is omnipresent within animal agriculture, which has subscribed to the capitalist “logic of accumulation”, with its fixation on speed, scale and technology. These priorities lead to the commodification of space and time, as reductions in these areas are synonymous to profit. Through this commodification, comes ““time-space compression”, where producers employ technologies and techniques to maximise production in the smallest spatiotemporal scales possible. However, the Treadmill is mirrored by risk; industrial time-space compression is concomitant with externalities. 

Acceleration through Concentration

Factory farming operations are prime facilitators of EID and HPAI, due to their profit-seeking spatiotemporal acceleration techniques, such as high SDs. For instance, modern poultry farming, being an economy of scale, increases SD, where facilities routinely confine c50,000 birds within a single locality. These SDs were only made possible through technological advancement; the advent of vitamin d tablets and antibiotics made hospitable, the before-deadly cramped and dark conditions of factory farms. These SDs are profit-oriented as they allow mass production in miniscule space, with minimal time commitments. However, the spatiotemporally compressed, cost minimising, unhygienic, ammonia ridden, and cramped conditions of these sites, creates breeding grounds for the germination, spread, and mutation of AI, increasing the chances of a HPAI, such as H5N1, gaining the ability to infect humans. Therefore, the political economy of speed has led to time-space compression within poultry farms that increases the risk of HPAI turning into perilous pandemics. 

Acceleration through Homogenisation

Finally, the former is made more calamitous when coupled with the genetic homogeneity within factory farms, which further amplifies infection, spread and mutation. This genetic homogeneity is caused by selective breeding, which is for profits sake; it provides accelerated growth and improvements in feed conservation. Therefore, it temporally compresses production. However, selective breeding creates birds with homogenous genomes which, within already cramped conditions, means that disease can spread and mutate faster, increasing the pandemic potential. Furthermore, poultry are “bred to be sick”  as the metabolic energy required to sustain a strong immune system is taxing. This placement of the eggs into the growth basket, means that immunity is lost when bred for growth, subjecting selectively bred poultry with immunodeficiency. This immunodeficiency creates birds who are more disease-prone and therefore spread disease more often, leading to more mutations. Thus, overcrowding and selective breeding are examples of spatiotemporally compressed production methods, for the sake of profit, which increase the likelihood of pandemic emergence. 

Therefore, we need a whole-sale change in our farming methods if we are to successfully mitigate the harms that AI poses. This is not only a safer solution than flockdowns and mass killings, but also a more ethical and environmentally friendly approach.  


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