Fowl Play: The Role of Agribusiness in the Avian Flu Crisis
by Devlin Kuyek

Bird flu is really nothing new. It has co-existed rather peacefully with wild birds, small-scale poultry farming and live markets for centuries. But the wave of highly pathogenic strains of bird flu that have decimated poultry and killed people across the planet over the past 10 years is unprecedented—as is today's transnational poultry industry.

Although the view from international organizations and the globalized poultry industry itself is to the contrary, there may be good reason to suspect a causal link between highly pathogenic strains of bird flu and the rise of globalized, factory farms.

The transformation of poultry production in Asia in recent decades is staggering. In the Southeast Asian countries where most of the bird flu outbreaks are concentrated—Thailand, Indonesia and Vietnam—production jumped eightfold in just 30 years, from around 300,000 metric tons of chicken meat in 1971 to 2,440,000 metric tons in 2001. China's production of chicken tripled during the 1990s to more than 9 million metric tons per year. Practically all of this new poultry production has happened on factory farms concentrated outside of major cities and integrated into transnational production systems. This is the ideal breeding ground for highly-pathogenic bird flu—like the H5N1 strain threatening to explode into a human flu pandemic.

Nevertheless, the many papers, statements and strategy documents coming out of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), World Health Organization (WHO) and relevant government agencies contain barely a whisper about the implications of industrial poultry in the bird flu crisis. Instead, fingers are pointed at backyard farms, with calls for tighter controls on their operations and greater "restructuring" of the poultry sector.

The big poultry corporations are even trying to use the bird flu outbreaks to do away with what is left of small-scale poultry production. "We cannot control migratory birds but we can surely work hard to close down as many backyard farms as possible," Margaret Say, Southeast Asian director for the USA Poultry and Egg Export Council, told Reuters.

Backyard farming is not an idle pastime for landowners. It is the crux of food security and farming income for hundreds of millions of rural poor in Asia and elsewhere, providing a third of the protein intake for the average rural household. Nearly all rural households in Asia keep at least a few chickens for meat, eggs and even fertilizer, and they are often the only livestock that poor farmers can afford. The birds are thus critical to their diversified farming methods, just as the genetic diversity of poultry on small farms is critical to the long-term survival of poultry farming in general.

The argument used against backyard farming generally goes like this: in backyard farms, poultry wander around in the open, coming into frequent contact with wild birds carrying the bird flu virus and humans vulnerable to transmission. These farms are thus said to act like a mixing bowl for the constant circulation of the disease. Backyard farms are also frustrating for authorities because their very nature—small-scale, free-range, scattered and informal—makes it difficult for them to implement their two major control measures: culling and vaccination. The argument is widely accepted by governments around the world, and today most farm level laws and policies for the control of bird flu seek to keep poultry separated from wild birds.

By and large, these laws and policies are totally impractical for small farmers. In Southeast Asia, governments, with the support of the FAO, are encouraging farmers to set up mesh screens or bamboo enclosures for their poultry. But the costs, estimated at $50 to $70, are out of reach for Asia's small-holders, who typically make less than $1 a day. In places like Thailand, where such measures have been enacted, it has immediately forced small farmers to abandon poultry.

There is considerable evidence that wild birds are victims, not vectors, of highly pathogenic avian influenza. The highly pathogenic strains of bird flu develop in poultry, likely in poultry exposed to milder strains that live naturally in wild bird populations. Within crowded poultry operations, the mild virus seems to evolve rapidly towards more pathogenic and highly transmissible forms, capable of jumping species and spreading back into wild birds, which are defenseless against the new strain. In this sense, H5N1 is a poultry virus killing wild birds, not the other way around.

There is evidence too that the same argument holds for small-scale poultry production. In this view, bird flu does not evolve to highly pathogenic forms in backyard poultry operations, where low-density and farm diversity keep the viral load to low levels. Backyard poultry are the victims of bird flu strains brought in from elsewhere.

When backyard farms are separated from the source of highly pathogenic bird flu, the virus seems to die out or evolve towards a less pathogenic form.

The FAO and the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) report that there is evidence that H5N1 is adapting to village chickens in the same way that it has adapted to domestic ducks and that there is "growing evidence that the survival of the virus in smallholder and backyard poultry is dependent on replenishment." It may be that it is in crowded and confined industrial poultry operations that bird flu, like other diseases, rapidly evolves and amplifies.

It is the links between backyard production and the industrial poultry system—in both directions—that are so problematic. Backyard farms can act as reservoirs, says Dr. Joseph Domenech, chief veterinary officer of the FAO, harboring bird flu beyond the reach of authorities until it eventually finds its way into intensive poultry operations where the disease amplifies and possibly evolves to more highly pathogenic forms with the potential for transmission between humans. Backyard farms are also often intimately connected to the industrial system, through markets, inputs (such as day-old chicks and feed) and even veterinary services.

Laos provides important evidence to support this theory. It has not suffered widespread bird flu outbreaks like its neighbors. There is almost no contact between Laos' small-scale, free-range poultry farms, which produce nearly all of the domestic poultry supply and where chickens mix with ducks, quail, turkeys and wild birds, and its commercial operations, which are integrated with foreign poultry companies.

If free-range farming and migratory birds are responsible for spreading bird flu, one would expect to find the disease raging across the country. This has not happened. In fact, the country's backyard farms have barely been touched.

Forty-five outbreaks have been confirmed in Laos, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, with 42 of these occurring on commercial enterprises. The few "smallholders who found avian influenza in their flocks were located nearby commercial operations suffering the disease," USDA reports.

Laos effectively stamped out the disease by closing the border to poultry from Thailand and culling chickens at commercial operations. Laos officials were less concerned about the disease spreading out from the affected farms because, unlike in Thailand and Vietnam, small-scale farmers in Laos are not supplied by big companies with day-old chicks or feed, and, outside of the capital, poultry is produced and consumed locally. Poultry production is also more spread out in Laos. It is less dense, less integrated and less homogeneous—all of which may keep bird flu from spreading and evolving into more pathogenic forms.

The Laos experience suggests that the key to protecting backyard poultry and people from bird flu is to protect them not so much from wild birds as from industrial poultry and poultry products. This is relatively easy to do in a country like Laos where there are few factory farms, minimal use of outside inputs and essentially local food systems. It is much more difficult to extricate the industrial system from the small-scale poultry system in Thailand, Indonesia or China, where both are so intimately connected by geography, markets and production. In these countries, "restructuring" poultry production in ways that support small-scale operations requires a 180-degree turn away from intensive, integrated factory farming and globalized production.

In September 2004, Cambodian authorities reported yet another bird flu outbreak at one of the country's few commercial broiler operations. This time, the authorities identified the source of the outbreak: chicks supplied to the farm by Charoen Pokphand (CP), the Thai company that is Asia's biggest producer of poultry and poultry feed. The bird flu outbreaks in Cambodia have generally been confined to the country's commercial sector, and all of Cambodia's commercial operations are linked to CP in one way or another, either under contracts or through the purchase of inputs like day-old-chicks and feed that CP imports from Thailand.

CP denied the Cambodian accusations, but in Laos, too, outbreaks of bird flu were confined to poultry farms importing feed and chicks from Thailand. The same appears to be the case in Burma, where there were reports of an outbreak at a factory farm supplied with chicks from CP.

CP is in fact present nearly everywhere bird flu has broken out. In Thailand, the base of the CP empire, and the country where it first introduced its vertically integrated production systems, it contracts production to about 10,000 growers, controlling the entire production chain, from feed to retail poultry sales. It is the biggest supplier of broiler chicks in China too, with a hatchery in bird flu-infested Lanzhou Province that produces nine million chicks a year. In Indonesia, CP dominates the chicken feed industry and is the number one supplier of chicks for broiler and layer farms. CP also controls half of the industrial poultry sector in Vietnam, where, in February 2004, the army was mobilized to kill 117,000 birds infected by bird flu at one of CP's farms in Ha Tay Province. CP is even big in Turkey, where its subsidiary controls around 12 percent of the country's poultry production.

This is not to suggest that CP is solely responsible for the current bird flu crisis. To the extent factory farming is the problem, it is systemic, going beyond any single company. The international poultry trade is essentially out of control. In the Ukraine alone, nearly 12 million live chickens were imported in 2004. The real numbers are almost certainly higher, given the well-known underground poultry trade moving through the region. The Hastavuk Company in Turkey operates Europe's second largest hatchery, with the capacity to produce over 100 million hatching eggs per year, a substantial portion of which is exported to Eastern Europe and the Middle East. Hatching eggs are well-known to spread bird flu. Yet, despite the clear risks, there is hardly any regulation or monitoring of the poultry and egg trade in the region.

The internal poultry trade shows the same pattern. The FAO acknowledges that the domestic poultry trade spread H5N1 within Turkey and even singled out the common practice of commercial poultry farms sending out huge truckloads of low-value birds to poor farmers.

The global trade in poultry feed is dominated by the same companies. One of the standard ingredients in industrial chicken feed, and most industrial animal feed, is "poultry litter." This is a euphemism for whatever is found on the floor of the factory farms: fecal matter, feathers, bedding, etc. Chicken meat, under the label "animal by-product meal," also goes into industrial chicken feed. The WHO says that bird flu can survive in bird feces for up to 35 days and, in a recent update to its bird flu fact sheet, it mentions feed as a possible medium for the spread of bird flu between farms. Russian authorities pointed to feed as one of the main suspected sources of an H5N1 outbreak at a large-scale factory farm in Kurgan province, where 460,000 birds were killed.

The story has repeated in Africa. When an outbreak of H5N1 was confirmed in Nigeria in February 2006, the FAO and much of the international scientific community once again pointed to migratory birds, even though the infected factory farm was not close to migratory wetlands and there was no evidence of infection or die-offs among wild birds in the area. "If it's not wild birds, it will be difficult to understand," the FAO's Joseph Domenech told the Los Angeles Times.

The Nigerian authorities, however, pointed immediately to the poultry sector, one of the largest and most industrial in sub-Saharan Africa. Bird flu broke out again on a single factory farm with over 40,000 birds. The farm is owned by the country's minister of sports, and, as one Nigerian poultry expert says, "such people often do things 'their way' without paying any or enough attention to the rules." As it turns out, the farm in question was not using registered hatching eggs, meaning that the hatching eggs, which are not subject to the import ban placed on poultry, were likely imported and may well have come from a bird flu-infected country like Turkey, a leading exporter of hatching eggs. The disease then spread to other factory farms, with one local poultry farmers' association claiming that over 150,000 birds had died on 30 poultry farms owned by their members in the area.

Although there appears good reason to believe factory farms are playing a central role in the bird flu story, it is small farms that are bearing the brunt of the global response. In February 2006, the Egyptian government confirmed that bird flu had broken out in the nation's poultry. With the international spotlight beaming upon it, the government did not want to look unprepared or, worse, at fault. So it immediately responded by blaming migratory birds and traditional poultry practices. "The world is moving towards big farms because they can be controlled under veterinarian supervision. . The time has come to get rid of the idea of breeding chickens on the roofs of houses," said Egypt's Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif.

Then the Egyptian government swung into action with a military-style cleansing operation. It ordered the culling of all backyard and rooftop poultry and banned live bird markets, where 80 percent of the nation's poultry is sold. Farmers were promised compensation and vendors were promised refrigerators, so they could switch to selling frozen chicken, but neither materialized, according to Karam Saber of the Cairo-based Land Centre for Human Rights. Meanwhile, the government banned the transport of live poultry and ordered that all slaughtering must take place in official slaughterhouses, leaving farmers not located near the few official slaughterhouses with no way to slaughter their chickens.

In less than a month, the Egyptian government effectively destroyed its multi-billion dollar poultry industry, the livelihoods of millions of Egyptians and its ancient poultry practices and biodiversity. The government soon began easing restrictions on imports of frozen meat to make up for domestic shortfalls and importing chicks from the United States and Europe to restock its commercial farms.

The injury to regular people's livelihoods may well have been unnecessary. While some backyard and rooftop flocks have been infected, far more birds in Egypt are dying from bird flu in factory farms. Plus, extensive testing of live migratory birds in Egypt since 2004 did not report cases of bird flu. Although official veterinarian reports single out backyard flocks, the website of the Egyptian government clearly lists initial outbreaks at three factory farms where nearly 70,000 birds were culled, followed by further outbreaks on large factory farms in the regions of Ashmoun, Al-Marg, Giza Badrashaan and Damietta, as well as the culling of 77,000 birds at two farms near the desert city of Belbeis and 30,000 birds in nearby New Salhia where one of Egypt's largest poultry companies has its farms. The industry estimates that 50 percent of the commercial farms in the country have been infected and that over 25 million chickens have been slaughtered.

The response from the Egyptian government is sadly typical of what is happening around the world.

In India, for example, the government was badly prepared when bird flu broke out in the state of Maharashtra in March 2006. As in Egypt, the explosion of media interest propelled the government into action. The source of the outbreak was known to be from the area's major hatchery. Rather than follow the channels of transmission leading from there, the government imposed an indiscriminate cull in a 10 kilometer radius around the infected sites following World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines. Similar culls were repeated in one of the poorest districts of the state when a small number of samples collected from various villages came back positive. Within that district, complete culls occurred over an area of 1,500 square kilometers, involving more than 300,000 birds and over 300 villages.

The state did provide some compensation to the affected farmers, but according to Joseph Keve, a poultry farmer and researcher from Maharashtra, the 88 cents given per bird was far below the value of a village chicken, which typically sells for three times the price of a factory chicken and produces eggs worth four times the price of industrial eggs. The government has no plans for replenishing the invaluable poultry biodiversity that it destroyed and there is even talk of new state regulations to ban backyard poultry.

The preparedness plans are cold comfort to small poultry farmers.

In Benin, for instance, the government has already told farmers that all birds will be culled in a radius of three to five kilometers from any farm that is infected by bird flu. Patrice Sagbo, a local veterinarian, says that government officials are promising a little less than $4 per bird in compensation, but nobody believes them. Farmers were promised compensation for their pigs during a swine flu outbreak in 2000, but the money never arrived. Sagbo says that this time farmers get the impression that the government's main interest is in garnering money from international donors. So far, the government has done nothing to help farmers suffering from the collapse of local markets, as consumers turn away from chicken. And if bird flu does strike, the government's compensation scheme would cover no more than 10 percent of the national flock, according to Sagbo.

Going forward, governments and international agencies are proposing schemes that would systematically do away with backyard farming. FAO, which has long supported diversified poultry farming, is suddenly preoccupied with protecting the industrialization of poultry production from the risks of small-scale poultry farming. It has even begun to talk openly in policy documents about a restructured poultry industry of the future in Asia that will have:

more concentrated markets, with fewer, larger producers;

poultry production zones where infrastructure can be concentrated;

compartments for exporting countries, arranged in such a way that a minor outbreak of an exporting compartment will hardly affect export;

live markets moved to the outskirts of cities, with fewer licensed traders, centralized slaughtering and a large number of supermarket outlets in cities;

fewer small producers; and

requirements to fence and house all poultry.

This would be the death of Asia's small poultry farms. In Vietnam alone, the FAO admits that the implementation of "production zones" would result in the loss of income of potentially one million small commercial producers.

Devlin Kuyek works with GRAIN, an international nongovernmental organization that promotes the sustainable management and use of agricultural biodiversity based on people's control over genetic resources and local knowledge. This article is based on two GRAIN reports, "Fowl Play: The Poultry Industry's Role in the Bird Flu Crisis," and "The Top-0Down Global Response to Bird Flu," both of which contain full citations.

© Multinational Monitor March/April 2006