I am not a specialist; I am a generalist. But one thing we generalists have over the specialists is that we tend to see the connections between things a lot faster and more easily than specialists do. In fact, sometimes it’s so easy for us to see the connections that the specialists think we’re stupid. Or crazy. Or quacks. You name it; we’ve been called it. But enough about me.
I recently read a Mother Jones article about the latest batch of bird flu. It’s bad. It’s so bad that 36 million chickens have been euthanized just for disposal. What is especially confusing to farmers and scientists (and freaking both of them out) is that backyard chickens are almost completely unscathed. The disease is confined to factory-farmed chickens protected by “strict ‘biosecurity’ protocols,” which involve disinfecting, shielding birds from the outdoors, having farmers and workers change into special boots and coveralls and even shower before entering the chicken facilities—everything the authorities can think of to keep germs out and the environment sterile. Traditional specialist wisdom claims that wild birds spread bird flu. In this case, that isn’t possible. Otherwise, backyard chickens would be equally affected, and they’re not.
Hey, conventional bird farmers, have you heard about microbiomes? The term refers to the unique collection of bacteria that live in our bodies. Healthy microbiomes are all the rage in medicine and organic farming. And research on them is showing that “biosecurity” can be dangerous to one’s health. You NEED all those little wild germs, bacteria, fungi, and microbes in your gut, in your soil, and in your birds in order to stay healthy. That’s why the increasingly prevalent Clostridium difficile colitis (also known as C. diff and often caught in sterile hospitals) can be such a pain to treat; antibiotics do not easily cure this bacterial nightmare. In fact, it’s the killing of good microbiome germs by antibiotics that causes the infection. These days, C. diff infections are most easily cured with what could be called the opposite of sterile: fecal transplants. Yes, that shit works!
Supporting healthy microbiomes is also why probiotics are all the rage. Turns out your gut needs a jillion squirmy things you can’t see (all organic, of course) to digest your food properly and keep your immune system functioning well. Let’s not forget that kids who grow up on good old dirty farms with farm animals and mud to play in have fewer allergies than kids who grow up in cities with moms who worry way too much about keeping everything sterile and clean.
The thing is, conventional ag friends, it’s a paradigm shift. It’s about seeing nature as our friend and ally, not our enemy. It’s about being proud of being a specialist while still engaging in enough generalist activities to see the forest for the trees. It’s about all of us putting down the Purell and getting dirty from time to time. It’s also about realizing we are all one big team working together. No one can do it alone. Not one chicken, not one farmer, not one doctor or one germ. It’s also about putting progress ahead of the past. And this time, progress calls for opening up those biosecurity gates and letting the sunshine (and a few germs) in!
What’s the best answer? FREE BIRD!!! This, my friends, is a not-so-vague reference to Lynrd Skynrd (who, by the way, I saw play live in Philadelphia in 1978), a band whom even the most conventional farmer will recognize. Am I right?
Look, I know it is probably not that simple. But I can tell you with the utmost certainty that a generalist will say it’s not about tighter controls and more sterile environments; it’s about putting the health of the birds first and giving them fresh air, room to roam, and access to the wildness that creates health in all of us.
Not only is it possible, but also those 36 million chickens have spoken, and they say we must. We must.