The number of poultry culled around the world has almost doubled this season as global food shortages loom and the cost of living crisis deepens.
Experts are warning that an “unprecedented” bird flu outbreak has caused a huge spike in culling since last season.
According to figures from the World Organisation for Animal Health (WOAH), more than 22 million cases have been reported in wild birds and poultry so far this season in 68 countries.
This figure is double the 11m recorded between October 2020 and September 2021, itself an all-time high.
In an effort to curb the outbreak, 94.2m farmed poultry have been killed and disposed of.
Last season, 54.4m were culled.
Prior to 2020, the number of birds culled to stem the spread of avian flu worldwide has only topped 15m twice.
Experts say the surge has further disrupted supply chains, contributing to higher prices.
The news comes amid a cost of living crisis and mounting food insecurity that’s been exacerbated by government attacks on farmers, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, inflation, high gas prices, and droughts.
“This is a devastating situation from a market and supply perspective,” said Kathleen Liang, director of the Centre for Environmental Farming Systems in North Carolina, told The Telegraph.
“Remember that the chicken comes with the egg… the cost of both has definitely gone up due to bird flu, compounded by inflation and import/export challenges,” she added.
“Bird flu is one of a combination of factors that is driving food insecurity.”
In the UK, which has also been hit by an “unprecedented” bird flu season, some restrictions to protect poultry and captive birds were lifted in May.
However, an Avian Influenza Prevention Zone still remains in place – meaning bird keepers have to follow strict biosecurity measures.
Professor Munir Iqbal, head of the Avian Influenza Virus group at the Pirbright Institute in Surrey, told the Telegraph that the risk to agriculture remains high due to the ongoing spread in wild populations.
For example, at least 3,000 birds have died in the Farne Islands off the coast of Northumbria, according to the National Trust.
It is the worst disaster to hit its colonies in nearly 100 years.
Meanwhile, the Scottish Government Agency NatureScot has advised 23 islands to halt visitors in a bid to limit the spread of bird flu.
“Farmers are in constant threat from a disease outbreak at any time,” said Prof Iqbal.
“Even during the summer months, outbreaks with H5N1 [bird flu] are being reported… [which means] that the virus is prevailing in wild birds and being disseminated to poultry.”
“The cost of production is increasing due to both disease outbreaks and feed prices, [which affects] the livelihood of farmers as well as affordability for customers,” he added.
“The price of both poultry meat and eggs has significantly increased in the UK and other countries.”
Prof Iqbal said the issue is unlikely to dissipate quickly, and there are mounting fears about what the next flu season could look like.
“[This has been an] unprecedented season for the level of avian flu infection,” Dr. Christine Middlemiss, the UK’s chief veterinary officer, told BBC Radio Four on Tuesday.
“We are really concerned about what the next autumn-winter season will bring when the migrating birds return again.”
A Defra spokesperson added: “To date, 2.75 million birds have been culled in the UK, a small proportion of the 20 million birds produced each week by the poultry industry.
“The UK is experiencing its largest ever outbreak of bird flu, and our teams are working around the clock to support poultry keepers impacted by this terrible disease.”
Grady Ferguson, a senior research analyst at the data consultancy Gro Intelligence, said that while new cases have tapered off, the losses “will continue to impact its industry, potentially for years, as did the US’ 2014-15 losses of 50m birds”.
“That was the worst animal health disaster in US history,” he said.
“This year, the US has so far lost 40 million.
“More losses may begin in the fall as migratory birds – a major suspected [bird flu] spreader – head south for the winter.”
It is not clear what has driven the current surge, but experts say the scale of the rise means it is unlikely to reflect better surveillance – especially in poultry, where disease has always been closely tracked.
Instead, governments are arguing that shifting migration patterns, rising contact between free-range poultry and wild birds, “climate change,” or an unexpected “influenza epizootic” could be responsible.
Internationally, other diseases are also threatening food security.
African swine fever, a highly contagious viral disease that has devastated the pork trade in China, is continuing to spread worldwide.
According to the WOAH, close to 80,000 cases have been detected in farmed and wild pigs since January.
Meanwhile, a new foot and mouth disease outbreak has hit Indonesia.
More than 55,000 livestock in 23 of the archipelago’s 37 provinces infected with the disease as of Tuesday, according to government data.
Cattle-producing countries including Australia and New Zealand have raised their guard after cases were found in the tourist hotspot Bali.
“These issues are not going to go away,” said Prof Liang.
“We have to improve our understanding of viruses and better protect our livestock and wildlife… to improve food security.”
As Slay News previously reported, a food restaurant chain mogul is warning the public to prepare for major global food shortages this winter.
Pat McDonagh, the head of Supermac’s, a major fast food chain in Ireland, is telling the general public to begin preparing for the looming global food crisis now by stocking up on non-perishable food, urging people to “stock up now.”
McDonagh put great emphasis on difficulties to do with fertilizer shortages around the world.
The lack of fertilizer is so severe that it risks halving farmers’ crop yields.
“I would be recommending people to buy a bit of long-life food earlier on,” he said.