Bhutan recently announced a ban on battery farming and expressed its wish to become the world’s first fully organic country. Across the border, Sikkim already manages to raise one-third of its agricultural produce without chemical pesticides. This is a far cry from conditions in Nepal, where the Central Food Laboratory recently found alarming levels of antibiotics such as penicillin and amoxicillin in milk and chicken samples. Ten percent of chicken sold in Kathmandu and Tarai were found having ‘extreme’ levels of drugs including tetracycline, sulfonamide, penicillin, aminoglycoside and micro lead.
We have all heard about the commercial poultry industry but maybe few know of the immense animal suffering it involves. In Nepal, due to the ever increasing demand for meat, eggs and dairy products, traditional methods of backyard and free-range livestock and poultry farming increasingly make way for commercial ways of farming.
Although still limited, if nothing is done, Nepal soon will have factories in which thousands of birds and animals are cramped into tiny cages or spaces and are reared in cruel conditions.
Already animals are badly overdosed with antibiotics, leading to a serious health crisis. People are exposed to these pathogens through infected meat. Even vegetarians are exposed to the antibiotics through air, soil and groundwater around the farms, as well as by eating vegetables fertilized with raw manure, in addition to the water supplies contaminated by farm animal waste.
The overuse of antibiotics leads to diarrhea, eye, bones and brain cell damage, skin diseases and urinary infections. It can contribute to drug-resistance and is particularly harmful for children.
Nepal needs to question, before it is too late, how it wants to develop its meat and dairy industry and how this will benefit our farmers and the public and the economy as a whole. My intention is to start a debate to implement policies and methods most beneficial for Nepal, which will not only increase revenues for farmers but also contribute to minimizing cruelty.
Backyard farming, where poultry are raised in a way where their freedom to perch, scratch, feed and basically follow their natural way of surviving, is the most natural and humane way of raising chickens, ducks and other meat birds. According to an official at the Department of Livestock fortunately 55 percent of poultry rearing in Nepal is carried out this way.
However there is a rising shift towards Deep Litter and Battery Cage farming of poultry. The Deep Litter way is where chickens are confined in large sheds. The birds are allowed to roam freely but there is hardly any natural light, not enough space per bird and complete lack of natural environment that the species needs for healthy growth. They are also de-beaked, a painful procedure, where their beaks are clipped so that they do not peck at each other.
Already 25 percent chicken in Nepal is reared in this manner for the commercial meat industry. These types of farms are close to the urban centers, where the demand is high. The risk of diseases like bird flu is high as a large number of birds are kept together in confined spaces.
Battery farming is the cruelest way of poultry farming as birds are given an A4 size space to live for a period of two years for the purpose of laying eggs. They can barely move and their claws grow into the wire mesh below. Once they are thought to be past their egg-laying days, they are yanked out of the cages or their claws are sliced through to pull them out and be shipped for the meat industry, or whatever other use they may have. Can you imagine the pain they must feel when their claws are sliced through?
In Nepal, around 20 percent of poultry farming is believed to done using Battery Cage method.
Is this how we want to see the poultry industry grow in Nepal? Do we want to displace small farmers and local poultry species and rearing methods? Will our children even know what local khukhura ko masu or local eggs tastes like?
Already there is much untold suffering in the poultry industry. Chicken farms are often unorganized businesses, in which an unknown number of chicken suffer from disease and neglect. Trucks carrying poultry to the capital usually count a large number of dead animals.
Chicken and ducks are not objects that feel no pain. They are sentient beings whose basic needs must be met to preserve the balance of health and environment.
Recently, I was taken aback when an official at the Department of Livestock told me rather curtly that the government has to consider the producers’ interest, when I politely asked them to reconsider allowing battery cage farming in Nepal. Concerned officials, while not ignorant about the cruelty, seem more concerned about the economics. They feel only large farms can meet the demand and make money, while the truth is that there probably is an equal demand for naturally reared poultry. Instead of promoting a few large farms, why not support the farming community as a whole and make sure the benefits are equally shared?
International agencies seem keen on promoting the industry. International Finance Corporation (IFC), a member of the World Bank Group, helps Nepal’s two leading poultry farms. Although much support is needed, in areas including rearing, disease management, transport and slaughter, I encourage international agencies to build on Nepal’s traditional farming methods and to spread benefits, especially among small farmers.
In Nepal, while the industry is still relatively undeveloped, we have a chance to say no to inhumane production methods and adopt and develop humane ways of farming.
Who knows with the passage of time and good poultry rearing practices Nepali producers may find markets outside, since there is a growing demand for humanely produced free-range meat products. If branded and marketed correctly, consumers—both local and foreign—will arguably be interested in standard meat and dairy products from Nepal, reared in the most natural way possible.
Nepal, famous for its beautiful natural environment, should consider following the Bhutan and Sikkim examples. That way, animal suffering will be reduced and public health will improve.