In politics, a candidate’s handlers are always sensitive to opportunities to create a sense of danger, even when there’s no immediate threat. Fear is a powerful motivator.

That same tactic is also seized upon by activists looking to toss some mud on animal agriculture, and a recent story posted by the Thomson Reuters Foundation provided exactly such an opportunity.

The subject was the threat of animal diseases that can devastate entire livestock sectors, and pose a threat to human health, as well, and the interviewee was Juan Lubroth, the chief veterinary officer for the UN’ s Food and Agriculture Organization.

As reported in the story titled, “Asia’s hunger for meat could stoke diseases if unregulated, warns UN,” Lubroth cautioned that the increase in production capacity across Asia also increases the threat that disease outbreaks could occur the near future.

At least that’s the slant Reuters took.

As the story stated, “A boom in demand for meat in Asia threatens to fuel the spread of disease from animals to humans, as boosting production often takes priority over food safety, a United Nations agency warned.”

Unless governments step up their regulatory oversight, outbreaks of infectious diseases such as SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) and bird flu “will become more common,” according to Lubroth. He noted that the SARS outbreak in 2002-03 affected thousands of people in China, and resulted in 775 deaths.

“We will see more diseases and we will see more epidemics, starting tomorrow,” said FAO Chief Veterinary Officer Juan Lubroth.

Really? Maybe he made that statement to the Reuters reporter, but here’s what he actually said on a video news release posted on the official FAO website:

“We could have a problem on our hands,” he said. “When will that occur? I don’t know.”

In that same video interview, Lubroth went on to say, “We are always at risk of a human pandemic. When will that occur? I don’t know.”

Which Way to Go?

That sounds a lot more “nuanced” and cautious than the headline on the story suggested. Granted, the combination of population and economic growth across South Asia has greatly increased people’s appetites for meat. FAO statistics reveal that annual consumption of meat products in that region now averages more than 100 pounds per capita.

That represents a five-fold increase since the 1960s, and consequently, production in pork and poultry has increased substantially. Lubroth referenced the “problem” of the selective breeding practices that have accompanied the production increase, which he said makes larger outbreaks more likely.

“All these animals are genetically very similar, so if one is susceptible (to a disease) all of them are,” he was quoted as saying.

Now, assuming that’s an accurate statement, there are two ways to approach mitigation. One way would be a massive shift to a more diversified production system, with many more breeds, breed lines and even more growers and producers brought into the industry.

How that gets done is unclear, and even if it were possible to accomplish, it’s not at all certain it would reduce the threat of an animal disease outbreak. As a matter of fact, the bird flu outbreaks that have hit North America were clearly triggered by the fact that “backyard flocks” of chickens were virtually impossible to monitor and/or eradicate as the outbreak spread.

The other approach, the one that FAO obviously supports, is to ramp up veterinary surveillance, and the monitoring of “best practices” on the prevention end of production.

“The threat comes from outbreaks that go unreported, that cross borders,” Lubroth stated on his video statement. “We need to monitor [animal health] globally, but we need to intervene locally on the ground.”

What he’s referring to is biosecurity for facilities, training for production personnel, and compliance with veterinary protocols — such as prompt treatment of diseases — that have been developed to minimize the potential for an outbreak.

Now let’s see. Where are those components most likely to be in place? In small-scale production systems run by individual operators, or in so-called “industrialized” operations and regulatory systems that have the capital to invest in those deliverables?

The modern systems that activists find so offensive are exactly what the head of the global organization tasked with mitigating the threat of veterinary and zoonotic diseases is suggesting as the way to head off an animal and/or a human epidemic.

In other words, incidences of animal disease are more likely to occur where more modern production systems, the ones that are demonized as cruel and inhumane by activists, are absent.

Of course, one other option would be for the 1.3 billion people in China to just stop eating meat.

If you’re going to indulge in fantasy, why not go all the way?

The opinions in this commentary are those of Dan Murphy, a veteran journalist and commentator