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Science & Technology

ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: Agro-industrie. Élevages intensifs, la recette de la poule au pou

by Marie-Noëlle Bertrand

Agribusiness. Intensive farming: Chicken Little was right

Translated Wednesday 23 August 2017, by Meghan O’Shea

Standardized and concentrated, industrial farms have become more vulnerable to diseases, and thus more dependent on pharmaceuticals, or "pharming". But when does the price paid by society for the use of these pesticides become too much even for commercial breeders?

Photo by Pierre Bessard/Réa. In France, intensive hen-raising "in battery" has rapidly gained ground. 5% of all exploitations raise 41% of egg-laying poultry, each such installation having 100,000 animals.

Is a different kind of egg possible? The European fipronil-tainted egg scandal has not ended, and with it has come a questioning of the industry’s practices. Standardized and concentrated, large-scale farms have become more vulnerable to diseases and other parasites, and hence are more dependent on pharmaceuticals and, in some cases, on underhanded suppliers. The proof is in the pudding - or rather the custard!

"When there is concentration, there is an increased risk of contamination or accident," says Raymond Girardi, General Secretary of the French small farmers union, the Mouvement de défense des exploitants familiaux (Modef). This is not only applicable to the case of chickens and red lice. The duck farming industry is also in crisis, facing a severe epidemic of avian influenza, having been brought on by these methods. "Everything started with a large breeder (a factory farm focused on the hatching of eggs) located in the Tarn Department of France, which sold its contaminated "gaveurs" (ducklings) and "prêts à gavers" (mature ducks) to farms throughout the Lot and Gers Departments of France," he said. Within a few weeks, the whole area was contaminated. "If the method of production had been organised within small areas and involved smaller farms, the virus could have been contained." Likewise, concentrated breeding makes prevention more complicated, even at a single production location. As in a crowded subway, illnesses and other pests pass easily from beak to beak, making prevention more difficult and forcing producers to resort to curative treatments.

Organisms of control without the means to act

Organic farming is not immune to this. Its regulations require that producers limit the number of hens per breeding room to a maximum of 3,000. It sets no threshold, however, on the number of breeding rooms per barn. "Some can house 9,000 or even 12,000 chickens! " says Philippe-André Richard, an organic egg producer in Brittany.
He chooses to have 9,000 chickens, in two buildings. He has suffered a few failures, he admits, "but there are some bright spots, such as that we no longer use antibiotics". Problems have become rarer and, when they occur, this producer treats them with plants and essential oils.

Is it an effective solution? Yes, but some hurdles remain. "Treatment may take longer or cost more. But that’s the choice we made," concludes Philippe-André Richard. One also needs to have the ability to make those choices. "There are a lot of natural alternatives to chemical treatments," says André Le Du, co-chair of the French Research Institute for Organic Farming’s (ITAB) Livestock Commission. "But due to the lack of adequate regulation, many of these substances do not receive authorization to be sold on the market.”

The fipronil scandal, moreover, has demonstrated that fraud is not excluded from this industry. Of the approximately 250,000 contaminated eggs found in France, over 48,000 sold by Leader Price were stamped as organic. Allegations have been made that some Dutch producers were tricked into purchasing a contaminated eucalyptus disinfectant. "Having efficient oversight bodies remains essential," says Philippe-André Richard. In this, however, France appears to be lacking. According to the weekly Le Canard enchaîné, the French Directorate-General for Food Safety was only able to inspect 677 eggs, last year... 15 billion were sold.

To try to do without any products, some opt for microstructures. Located in the Essonne Department of France, Charles Monville’s breeding farm never has more than 250 chickens. "I’ve never seen a red louse, and I haven’t had to use any pest control product in ten years," he says. The size of his breeding flock allows for upstream management. "Every year, I sell my chickens in order to introduce new ones, and the flock is moved to a new location." At his farm, the hen house remains empty for one month, and the outer fields where the flock peck and scratch the earth remains fallow for two months. On the other hand, the small size of his breeding flock does not allow him to meet EC standards and he is not allowed to distribute his products in supermarkets (not even in those specializing in organic foods). "But I like the direct sales and it allows me to place real value on my product," says the farmer. He sells one box of 6 organic eggs for 3 euros; mass distributed eggs sell for a similar price, between 2.75 euros and 3.25 euros.

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