Subsistence poultry production is widespread. A large share of the South East Asian population lives in rural areas with low incomes and widespread ownership of poultry. In Africa, subsistence poultry production (backyard and scavenging systems) accounts for 70 percent of the continent's poultry production.
Poultry producers hit by avian influenza face severe economic repercussions. They face immediate loss of income and assets from the death of infected poultry and the culling of others. Additional income losses occur in the period between an outbreak and re-stocking. Production costs are likely to rise following the introduction of avian influenza control strategies.
Investments in greater biosecurity might be necessary, especially for semi-commercial producers and smallholders. There is likely to be an unequal vulnerability to rising production costs and decline of revenue between two major types of poultry production: small-scale and industrial.
The small commercial poultry producers often have to turn to loans in the absence of extensive liquid resources that would allow them to survive periods of low prices or production declines. They are under added pressure of having to pay back loans and maintain their poultry business which, for many families in rural areas, constitutes the sole means of deriving a livelihood.
Within integrated industrial and large-scale farms, poultry production is usually covered by a high level of biosecurity and the probability of experiencing an outbreak of avian influenza is low. The profitability of production is sufficient to provide producers with liquidity to survive periods of low prices, even in the face of trade bans.
However, it may not be sufficient to safeguard against the loss of markets that a pandemic scare could cause. Avian influenza and the impact of the associated economic threats could accelerate a trend towards intensive poultry production systems.
This raises the question of what would happen to the rural poor who depend on the family-based poultry systems that provide protein and cash. In Africa for example, the first to suffer from the disappearance of family-based poultry production would be women, since it is they who look after the birds.
In the short term, avian influenza outbreaks are more likely to have a serious economic impact on local producers rather than threaten national food security. Urban consumers would be able to substitute poultry with other sources of protein or purchase poultry from parts of the country not affected by the outbreak.
Involving the rural poor
In general, policies toward avian influenza in outbreak countries must necessarily involve the rural poor majority these people are part of the solution to reducing disease risk, not the problem.
Tailored policy responses are needed in order to combat the disease and reduce its negative economic and social impact on poultry farmers. Short-term policy responses to combat outbreaks of avian influenza and its further spread need to be accompanied by long-term strategies that reduce the vulnerability of smallholders and increase the biosecurity of their production systems.
Policy must protect the interests of all, but above all those of the rural poor who are marginal ‘players' on the international scene and stand to lose the most.
Policy that helps combat the disease in the poultry possessed by both small and commercial producers must be accompanied by policy designed to educate consumers and restore their confidence.
Avian influenzapresents an unusual opportunity for international cooperation because millions of poor rural households can contribute significantly to the global commons of pandemic disease prevention. Their participation in this effort must be better understood and indeed rewarded if success is to be achieved.