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Colombian scientists have recently succeeded in training rats to sniff out land mines.

and in India there’s the Karni Mata temple that worships rats at Deshnoke, Rajasthan.

In Vietnam, we have Trần Quang Thiều, dubbed vua diệt chuột – king of exterminating rats, from BÌnh Vong village, Thường Tín province, North of Vietnam. Originally a farmer, Trần Quang Thiều invented his own mousetraps in order to kill off rats attacking his rice fields. He’d also carefully studied the behavior pattern of different rats in the area and learned where they like to hid and how they choose their routes and succeeded in placing the traps at their most vulnerable spots. Among 43 types of rats in Vietnam, 32 types succumber to his traps. In 2000 he started traveling around the area to help people, openly sharing his trapping methods and mousetrap designs. By 2006 he opened his company, exterminating rats from not just rice fields but factories, hotels, schools, big buildings, etc. They’ve killed over 10 million rats.

I read about phone apps used to identify people infected with highly infectious disease such as flu in the neighborhood last year but apparently apps produced to collect data and track the spread of diseases have been developed since 2006. These apps, according to the BBC were first developed for field workers to send data on outbreaks and drug administration to a central database, providing real time data and enabling health officials to make more informed decisions.

By 2009, with the outbreak of swine flu H1N1 there are a hoard of mobile apps for the general populace to use. There’s Outbreaks Near Me developed by HealthMapAccording to USA Today it works like a GPS, displaying locations on maps with more information from news coverage or user submitted updates, and aims at “giving people real time alerts” and “not to increase fear.” Other apps include Mobile World Disaster, Swine Flu News Tracker, Influenza A Tracker, etc.

There’s FluPhone developed by Cambridge University Computer Lab which monitors the way infectious disease spread. Using bluetooth, by anonymously recording interactions between volunteers in the study the app record the number of people each “infected subject” meet during an imaginary epidemic. The data provide some insight into our network structure which is useful in the study of the spread of disease.

Here’s a screenshot of HealthMap’s data on Vietnam. Unfortunately, there’s not much information. Apps like this require a large number of users to become useful, and it seems it will be a while to go before it has any impact in the developing world.

Back to the subject of farming models. Vietnam is shifting towards changes that are very similar to those in the Philippines from the 70s, and surrounding countries such as China, Thailand, India, Taiwan.

This article on worldwatch.org details the shift in the Philippines and environmental consequences. It points out that farming policies in Western Europe have become increasingly strick, resulting in a number of companies moving their meat production to other countries where there is little or very loose regulations. The article mostly focuses on the environmental consequences of industrial farms, but also touched upon the susceptibility to zoonotic disease due to the increasing movement between farms.

In Vietnam people used to bring living livestock to the market to slaughter and sell. After the outbreak in 2005 the government banned this practice, but in fact in the countryside this is still very common. Most families would buy live chicken and slaughter them in their own backyards.

On the Journey for Animal Science, there is another detailed essay on the economic importance of livestock keeping for small households, and the risk of zoonotic and food-borne disease.

According to online news sources each year 100-200 people die from food poisoning. That’s 4 times more each year than the worse of H1N1 death toll during the breakout in 2005. In Vietnam, it’s not just in farming practice, but in everything else that quality and safety control often fails. In simplistic terms, the question lies not just in what farming model to employ but rather how to improve the overall facility and health standards for both human and animal, and to have some form of quality control from livestock to meat produce.

Evolution of Flu Viruses, 1918-2009

Genetic relationships among human and swine influenza viruses, 1918-2009. Red arrows indicate human influenza virus lineages, black arrows swine influenza virus lineages, and gray arrows exportation of one or more genes from the avian influenza A virus gene pool. Horizontal bars shown inside the virus represent each of the eight virus genes, abbreviated PB2, PB1, PA, HA, NP, NA, M and NS. Credit: NIAID

Read more about the origin of swine flu here.

It was inevitable that on discussing animals we arrived at animal farming first of all. Vietnam, as a developing country, consists mainly of small household farming without proper structures or vets, posing many different health issues.

My impression after the conversation is that industrial farming is the future and inevitable, whether I like it or not. But why? Vietnam is in a place where it could try a different route and avoid the long term damage caused by industrial mass production.

Household farming in the past was predominantly the supplier of meat but since the outbreak of Avian Flu H5N1 in 2005 the government has ceased to support small farmers and instead encourage adoption of the industrial model.

Close human and animal contact certainly make transmitting illness much easier. At the same time being exposed to animal at a young age, human bodies get acclimated and develop natural antibodies. There is no proof that the industrial model is any safer than traditional household models. While industrial model provide better infrastructure but over time, as their purpose is to raise broilers with faster growth and return, they breed weaker chicken, kept alive only by vast doses of antibiotics (which leads to the other problem of antibiotic resistance). The long term prospect of having only a few breed is also problematic, and unfavorable by nature since if a virus succeed in killing one certain strand there is no other variety to escape this fate.

While avian flu emerged in Asia, and the first outbreak of the swine flue strand H1N1 in 1918 is unknown, the next outbreak in 1976 was in the US. There were numerous outbreaks in subsequent years, including in industrial farms.

One researcher also pointed out that it is not for health reasons that the traditional model is increasingly replaced by industrial farms, it is rather a matter of economic growth. The industrial model gives a fast return and seems the ideal model for cheap meat but is not sustainable and will ultimately result in costly  environmental damage. Importing foreign breed also means dependency on foreign imports, not just in terms of the breed but also antibiotics, facilities, feed, etc.

Cheap meat is also an illusion. The cheaper the meat the lower the quality. In the long run, money needed for cleaning up resulting environmental damages are substantial.  Feeding the world is a strange excuse as there is little meat available in places that are actually suffering from food shortage. Industrial farming is also not good for farmers and only beneficial to those already with substantial capital.

So what is Vietnam’s issue?

Does it make sense to import a farming model from the West that has proven to be faulty in various ways? Is it possible to create a model that is safer and smaller?

At the moment, local chicken are still prized and valued for their meat and their cultural qualities, and household livestock contribute substantially to the farmer’s livelihood. What of the future?