John Block: Bird Flu

By John R. Block

There is no industry more volatile or more uncertain than agriculture. The drought came and Texas and Oklahoma ranchers had to sell their cattle – not enough feed. Beef prices shot up. We still don’t have enough beef. The pork industry was hit with a swine disease. Thousands of baby pigs died. That resulted in a pork shortage and those prices shot up.

Now, we have bird flu. Who would have predicted? The H5N2 virus has killed 47 million chickens. We should be producing enough eggs to meet domestic demand and be able to export more than 30 million eggs per month. Not now. Iowa has been hurt the most – losing 30 million birds. That’s half the laying hens in the state.

The price of eggs has doubled. Egg processors making cakes, cookies, Krispy Kreme donuts, etc. are crying for eggs. For the first time in 10 years, we have authorized imports. Seven European countries have been approved to import shell eggs. Government officials say it will take as long as 2 years to get our production of eggs back to where it was before the virus.

This is not the first time we have been hit with a bird flu virus. When I was Secretary of Agriculture in the early 80s, we had our last bad bout with bird flu. That was a disaster then. But this time is much worse.

The Department of Agriculture oversees these problems. Farmers are compensated for the birds that die or are destroyed. According to Secretary Vilsack, the cost could exceed a half billion dollars. We are losing a lot of birds, including egg-laying hens, broilers, and turkeys. It will take a lot of money and time to rebuild the business.

Stopping the spread of the virus will not be so easy. Canadian geese in the state of Michigan have tested positive. They fly everywhere. In the meantime, the industry is looking for a vaccine to protect against the virus. None approved as of yet.

There is no industry more essential to mankind than food production. There is no industry more uncertain. And yet, our farmers and ranchers persist and get the job done. Did you know that this spring world food prices fell to their lowest level since 2009?

John Block was Secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture from 1981-1985, where he played a key role in the development of the 1985 Farm Bill.