No one at the Avian Influenza and Poultry Trade International Conference, which recently concluded in Baltimore, Maryland, summed up the challenge that this disease presents to veterinary and public health professionals and the worldwide poultry industry better than Dr. Brian Evans, head of the scientific and technical department, OIE. He said: “International trade is an undeclared war and disease outbreaks are the weapon of choice.” None of the more than 200 attendees at the conference objected to Evans’ characterization of trade, but the problem is that today’s poultry industry cannot survive and flourish without international trade.

Much of the growth of the worldwide poultry industry can be credited to the rapid efficiency gains resulting from the genetic selection programs of the primary breeders of broilers, turkeys and layers. A small handful of companies now produce virtually all of the world’s modern genetic stock. These primary breeders may have grandparent stock on most continents, but the foundation stock are housed in the U.S., U.K., Canada and a few countries in Western Europe. In the past few years, essentially all of the countries housing poultry primary breeder operations have been affected by one of the strains of highly pathogenic avian influenza that originated in Asia. Trade bans on poultry and poultry products have disrupted the flow of poultry genetics, and this will have far-reaching impacts. Poultry trade bans don’t just keep leg quarters out of the poultry importing country, they also deny breeding stock to the importing country and will result in empty growing houses and processing plants later down the road.

Transparency, communication, cooperation and trust were themes touched on by several of the speakers and audience members at the conference. International trade isn’t just about competition between poultry producers in different countries. Without international trade in poultry genetic stock, the poultry industries in the importing countries would not have access to the latest genetics, meaning high costs for producers and less protein for consumers.

Building trust and cooperation between countries isn’t just important to keep vital trade flowing, it is also the only way the avian influenza challenge will ever be controlled. The eradication efforts in North America that have been headlining WATT’s avian influenza coverage of late, heroic as they may be, ultimately will only be a short-term fix if the endemic avian influenza problem in Asia isn’t dealt with as well. Wild birds will keep migrating and the new influenza virus strains will continue to emerge.

I left the conference convinced that cooperation within and between countries is the only hope for finding a solution to a problem that has been with us for nearly two decades and has been getting worse. International trade is vital for the future success of the worldwide poultry industry, yet trade has historically been a major impediment to cooperation. Governments and poultry industries around the globe will need to realize that, yes, this is a war, but the enemy isn’t poultry producers in other countries; it is the influenza virus. Instead of clinging to technicalities to stop trade, we need to cooperate and use the best science and new technologies to find solutions and defeat the virus.