Blaming wild birds for the spread of avian flu is a convenient way of avoiding the real cause – intensively farmed poultry and the domination of the food chain by corporations whose first duty is to shareholders. In a factory farm with a high density of birds, the virus can spread and multiply rapidly throughout the huge confined flock, and beyond that, via the global trade in live birds, eggs, virus-contaminated feed and manure, across country borders and across continents. There were no fewer than 160,000 turkeys in the sheds in Suffolk where the deadly H5N1 strain was identified. But this is small stuff compared to the giant factories in Asia - the region where avian flu was first identified - which house millions of birds.
Grain, an international campaigning group promoting agricultural biodiversity in the developing world, says in a report entitled Fowl Play that 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 ten years is unprecedented - as is today's transnational poultry industry," says Grain. The group describes the transformation of poultry production in Asia in recent decades as "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 tonnes (mt) of chicken meat in 1971 to 2,440,000 mt in 2001. China's production of chicken tripled during the 1990s to over 9 million mt per year. The poultry industry in Asia supplies a significant proportion of the 200 million chickens Britain imports each year. Among the biggest corporations is Charoen Pokphand, the region's biggest producer of poultry and feed, and the Asian business partner of the supermarket giant Tesco. The Grain report adds: "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." There is speculation that the H5N1 originated in China. Reports suggest that the authorities tried to keep the lid on less virulent strains of avian flu by using an anti-viral drug intended for humans only. Such misuse could have caused the avian flu virus to mutate into the drug-resistant H5N1 strain.
Meanwhile, bodies like the World Health Organisation and the Food and Agriculture Organisation barely mention the implications of industrial poultry in the bird flu crisis. Instead, fingers are pointed at backyard farms which sustain many people in poorer countries. Where the FAO once supported local farmers, it now favours a switch to large-scale production, which shows how far the UN and its constituent parts are in bed with the corporations. As is New Labour, of course. Ministers are casting doubt about the source of the Suffolk outbreak, suggesting that we can never know. Sticking to the unknown wild bird theory leads to increased pressure on organic farmers, who rear poultry outdoors. Professor David King, the government’s tame chief scientist, says that in his view the arrival of the H5N1 virus in Britain would mean that "organic farming and free-range farming would come to an end". That’s just what the major producers want to hear. Meanwhile, the Bernard Matthew’s corporation will get vast sums in compensation for the culling of the wretched turkeys. Leaving food production under the ownership and control of a handful of producers and retailers, who drive down conditions as a way of reducing prices, is a real threat to human health world-wide. From H5N1 to the consequences of climate chaos, globalised capitalism is an unsustainable system as far as the welfare of the planet is concerned.
Paul Feldman, communications editor