Friday, March 16, 2007

Bird flu: a bonanza for Big Chicken

A corporate vision of globalised, full-integrated factory farms and slaughterhouses churning out standardised birds for supermarket shelves is being drilled into decision makers using the threat of a bird flu pandemic. The corporate bonanza is destroying traditional poultry systems and poultry biodiversity that hundreds of millions of people depend on for their food security and livelihoods. In the wake of the recent bird flu outbreak at Bernard Matthews’ turkey factories in Norfolk, Big Chicken – the group of huge and powerful corporations that have grown to dominate global poultry production in recent years – are rampant. A new report shows that agribusiness, Big Pharma and international agencies are using avian influenza to maximise corporate profits and push forward even deeper changes that will further squeeze the poor. It was produced by GRAIN, an organisation that promotes sustainable management and agricultural biodiversity. The report reveals that local resistance is gradually building, producing tensions between small producers, governments and UN agencies like the Food and Agriculture Organisation where corporate lobbies are entrenched. GRAIN’s report shows that although authorities are finally acknowledging the role played by the poultry trade in spreading the virus, the message to poultry farmers is still, "Get big, really big, or get out".

In Indonesia, Russia, India and Egypt, as well as in the UK, governments and the international agencies are rushing to the industry's defence, turning the bird flu crisis into an opportunity for the larger corporations to consolidate their control. GRAIN’s report says that the company that probably first brought bird flu to Vietnam is ready to take advantage of the latest crisis. "Charoen Pokphand (CP) will succeed in turning a crisis into an opportunity of development," says Sooksunt Jiumjaiswanglerg, president of CP Vietnam Livestock. The giant Thai-based transnational corporation, which supplies fast-food chains in Asia like KFC, controls around 80% of Vietnam's industrial chicken production and anticipates its growth in the country to soar by 30% per year. "Yet in a nation where an estimated 80% of the country's poultry production was at least until recently in the hands of small scale producers and over 70% of Vietnamese households keep poultry, it is no wonder that many independent poultry raisers are simply taking their chances and going underground," GRAIN reports.

The conflict over avian flu is widening to bring some countries into confrontation with the pharmaceutical giants. Indonesia, following China, has cut the supply of local H5N1 (bird flu) virus samples to the World Health Organisation, in an attempt to prevent big pharmaceutical manufacturers accessing the information to produce proprietary drugs. As GRAIN says, the whole power imbalance cemented into this system is grotesque. Poor countries supply "raw materials", for free, to a global pharmaceutical industry that concentrates market power and reaps huge profits through monopoly privileges called patents. Meanwhile, it is the poor countries that are facing the biggest public health problems. Indonesia has been calling for the WHO and others to help them develop the capacity to produce vaccines for themselves. But pharmaceutical corporations like Syngenta, Novartis and Pfizer are fighting ferociously in India, Thailand and the Philippines to prevent compulsory licensing and generic manufacturing. Any vaccine against a bird flu pandemic and the technology to produce it, should be shared and made available for free. The patent system serves little purpose in the health field except to enrich drug companies and their shareholders and is a barrier to tackling threatened pandemics like Avian flu, which themselves have their origin in industrialised agriculture.

Gerry Gold, economics editor

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