Views from the Secretary

Views from the Secretary

Not all farmers and ranchers in the world are open to government programs. In news items from around the world, we can see some common traits in farmers dealing with government.

Indonesia is the world's hot bed for bird flu. The virus is spreading through much of the open-range chicken industry in that nation and has killed 43 people, but some of its farmers still don't believe it is real.

The reaction of some Indonesians was to debunk what government officials said and openly drink chicken blood in the town squares to prove that it is safe. They also continued to eat chickens that died of illness in defiance of government advice.

We might attribute such a reaction to ignorance and expect better educated farmers to be more cooperative in combating a potential worldwide health threat. That is not always so.

I recently read a news item about efforts by the State of Vermont to prepare for arrival of the bird flu by creating a database of locations (farms) with animals that might get it or spread it.

The reaction of some Vermont farmers was not totally unlike the farmers' reaction in Indonesia. They did not drink any blood in protest, but they did mistrust the government, refuse to comply, claim it was none of the government's business, and compare the effort to actions by "Nazis."

We have heard similar arguments from ranchers in discussions about livestock tracking. They don't want their location and herd size recorded in a government database, because they feel it is nobody else's business.

I don't know if we fear the government too much, but I know we do not fear bird flu enough. Half the people who get H5N1 (bird flu) die despite the best efforts of modern medicine. That is something to fear. Nearly all infected poultry die. Other mammals (such as domestic cats) can get it from birds and die too.

In three reported cases, people contracted bird flu directly from wild birds. Nobody knows for sure how it spreads. We do know the virus is in the saliva and nasal droppings of sick birds and that seed-eating birds drop a lot of food out of their mouths. It is possible other birds pick up those contaminated food droppings. It is also possible shared water sources spread the disease.

Whatever small measures we take to prepare for bird flu will be inadequate when it arrives. In any contagious animal disease situation, quarantine is an essential tool. The government can't do that effectively without information on animal locations.

The tendency of farmers to resist government intrusion is not all bad. The United States of America was created by farmers and their firm belief in individual liberty. Secretly, we admire them for that.

Besides, when the emergency is really here, American farmers and ranchers will put their narrow thinking aside and do what is best for everyone. That is one of the things that sets us apart from others around the world.

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