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The bird-flu bonanza

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Grain is an international non-governmental organisation.

The bird-flu crisis rages on. In 2006, the United Nations's Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) was pointing a finger at Asia's and Africa's prolific household poultry for spreading avian influenza, and governments were talking about the risk posed by annual bird migrations.

Along with other groups, Grain - an international NGO that promotes the sustainable management and use of agricultural biodiversity - argued that the real culprits were large-scale industrial poultry farms and the global poultry trade, not backyard flocks or wild birds.

Today, this has become common knowledge, even though little is being done to control the industrial source of the problem, and some governments still roll out the wild-bird theory. While a recent outbreak in Moscow of the deadly H5N1 strain of avian flu was traced to a single market in the city, a government veterinary official warned of possible future outbreaks this spring as wild birds begin migrating northward.

Another more sinister dimension of the bird-flu (or avian-flu) crisis also is becoming apparent: pharmaceutical companies are attempting to take advantage of the goodwill shown by governments in creating a global database of flu samples to create highly profitable, captive vaccine markets. Two UN agencies - the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) and the World Health Organisation (WHO) - are at the centre of this process; they are using their international stature, access to governments and control over the flow of donor funds to advance corporate agendas.

Nailing the true culprits

The authorities dealing with bird flu finally are acknowledging the role played by the poultry trade in spreading the virus. This is long overdue. The first bird-flu outbreaks in southeast Asia in early 2004 - in Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Indonesia - occurred in closed, intensive factory farms. But no investigations were ever made into why the disease broke out on these farms and how it subsequently spread. The same happened in Turkey and Egypt; wild birds and backyard flocks were quickly blamed, while the poultry companies, which supplied markets and "backyard" producers with birds, were exonerated.

It was only in the United Kingdom in February 2007 that the myth that large farms are "biosecure" was shattered and the secrecy over the way that bird flu can spread through the transnational poultry industry was partly lifted.

UK government officials at first blamed wild birds for the outbreak on a large factory farm owned by poultry giant Bernard Matthews. Even though there recently had been an outbreak of avian flu in Hungary -- where Bernard Matthews also has operations -- the company dismissed news media reports of a possible link, saying that its plants were located far from the area infected by the disease. But the company's explanation fell apart when a government inspector found a wrapper on the poultry producer's UK premises proving that meat from a slaughterhouse in an area of Hungary infected by avian flu had been processed at the UK factory-farm just before the outbreak.

Slaughtering the small sector

There has never been any evidence that backyard poultry are behind any of the bird-flu outbreaks. The only peer-reviewed study to compare the risks between family farms and industrial operations, based on data from the 2004 bird-flu outbreaks in Thailand, found that "backyard flocks are at a significantly lower risk of [bird-flu] infection compared to commercial scale operations of broiler or layer chickens or quail". Yet in the Asian epicentre of the crisis, the message to poultry farmers continues to be: "Get big, really big, or get out."

In 2006, the Vietnamese government, in conjunction with the United Nations, drew up a ten-year plan to turn its poultry sector "into a modern, large-scale industry in terms of farming, slaughter and consumption", as the minister of agriculture put it. The programme began with a ban on live poultry in urban centres, with the elimination of thousands of backyard flocks. Then new regulations on trade and the slaughtering of poultry in residential areas led to the shutting down of small-scale markets and butchers, and the replacement of fifty slaughterhouses with just three licensed facilities on the outskirts of the cities.

Bird flu was probably first brought to Vietnam by Charoen Pokphand (CP), a Thai-based multinational corporation, which supplies fast-food chains (such as KFC) in Asia and controls around 80% of Vietnam's industrial chicken production. Yet, rather than being penalised, CP is booming. "CP will succeed in turning a crisis into an opportunity of development," commented Sooksunt Jiumjaiswanglerg, president of CP Vietnam Livestock, who said he expected growth in the country to climb by 30% a year. The three or four companies that control Vietnam's industrial poultry production are being given not only captive urban markets, but also a low-wage labour force of displaced peasants to work on their expanded production and slaughtering facilities.

The changes are devastating small-scale producers because the supermarkets and new slaughterhouses can only sell poultry that is certified according to standards that small farmers cannot comply with. Until recently, these farmers were responsible for an estimated 80% of the country's poultry production, with about 70% of Vietnamese households rearing poultry. Today many of these farmers believe they have no option but to carry on illegally.

Phan Anh Tam, a small-scale free-range-duck farmer in south-western Vietnam, told IPS News that he had little choice but to break the new laws. "If they want to kill them [my ducks], they'll be killing my children, because they are my means of feeding them," said the father of five, whose entire flock was culled during the 2003 disease outbreak.

People all over the developing world are defying orders to kill off their flocks, because their immediate livelihoods are at stake. Governments are feeling squeezed under conflicting pressures, and the FAO and the industry are finding it impossible to impose a standard, uniform approach.

Thailand's first priority was to protect its export industry, so it avoided vaccination and concentrated instead on mass culling and restructuring. China and Vietnam ignored international advice and decided on mass vaccination. Other countries, such as Nigeria, are struggling to figure out how to please the donors and the industry without triggering a revolt among the masses, whose livelihood and food security depend on the traditional systems of poultry production.

Trouble in Indonesia

The situation is particularly tricky in Indonesia, where bird flu is wreaking the most damage; sixty-six people now have died. The central government is trying to appease donors and big business by following the Vietnamese and Thai examples. On 1 February 2007, it announced a mass cull and a ban on live birds to come into effect in Jakarta and the nine other provinces where bird flu is most entrenched. New regulations for breeding, slaughter and retail of poultry are being developed behind closed doors in conversations between the industry, government and the UN agencies.

In a clear sign of what is to come, Jakarta has already designated sites for the relocation of slaughterhouses, storage facilities and bird markets. Using words that could just as easily have been uttered by his Vietnamese counterpart, agriculture minister Anton Apriyantono said: "Poultry farms must eventually be integrated with poultry slaughterhouses."

At the same time, the government is leaving big industry alone. On the large-scale commercial farms - where, despite incessant denials, bird flu remains a problem - everything is voluntary. In fact, the government and the public can do little but accept what the industry tells them because there is still a law on the books that prevents inspections of factory farms without the company's permission.

However, the Indonesian government is proving incapable of enforcing these top-down measures. "Traditional poultry practices are deeply rooted in our culture and they are critical to people's livelihoods," explains Riza Tjahjadi of the Jakarta-based Biotani Indonesia Foundation. "The government has a huge struggle on its hands if it expects people to give up their birds and neighbourhood markets for frozen chicken from supermarkets." Many people are simply ignoring the regulations, and some are starting to mobilise.

Sebindo (Serikat Buruh Informal Indonesia or Indonesia Informal Labour Union) staged a protest on 27 February 2007, during a meeting of the Indonesia Democratic Party of Struggle (led by former president Megawati Sukarnoputri). The action was part of Sebindo's campaign to provide more realistic information to the public about bird flu and to press the government to take more coherent action.

The union says that, through the mass cull order, "Indonesia's small-scale poultry industry has been declared the enemy and judged guilty" and that, with the order to relocate and integrate the poultry industry, the government is deliberately pushing the country into dependency on a few large industrial farms (plus foreign imports), with no guarantee that this will eliminate bird flu. (Some people are openly wondering if there is a hidden intention to open the door to banned frozen chicken from the United States.)

Agribusiness clearly suffers, at least in the short-term, from bird-flu outbreaks. But, from Indonesia and Russia to India and Egypt, governments and the various international agencies have quickly come to the industry's defence, and have even managed to turn the bird-flu crisis into an opportunity for the larger corporations to consolidate their control over the long term.

In October 2005, the world's biggest poultry companies came together to form the International Poultry Council to urgently defend and advance a unified position on bird-flu policy. Small-scale poultry producers and traders have been completely left out of decision-making processes, and this is reflected in the policies that have been adopted.

This article also appears in slightly different form on the website of Grain an NGO working for the sustainable management and use of agricultural biodiversity

Grain would like to acknowledge Riza Tjahjahdi and volunteers of Biotani Foundation Indonesia for generous help with background research. The term 'Big Chicken' comes from Wendy Orent, a US anthropologist and science writer.

Privatising bird flu

Similar tensions are plaguing the human-health side of the bird-flu crisis. On 9 February 2007, global media reported that Indonesia was cutting off the supply of local H5N1 virus samples to the WHO. According to the reports, the Indonesian government had learned that, without any notification or request for permission, an Australian company, CSL, was developing a bird-flu vaccine based on virus samples the government in Jakarta had handed over to the WHO.

In response, the story went on, Jakarta was turning its back on the WHO and, instead, negotiating a private deal with a big US pharmaceutical company, Baxter International. Baxter, it appeared, had agreed to produce and deliver vaccine to Indonesia on the government's terms. Worldwide, Indonesia was condemned for this move, accused of being greedy, misguided, short-sighted and nationalistic. That greatly angered the government, for it seemed like colonial times all over again, with Indonesia begin forced to give things for free so that others could make money.

As the heat died down and WHO and the Indonesian health ministry signed a public-relations peace agreement, it became clear that many people had misunderstood what was going on and what was at stake. Indonesia was not the first government to stop sending bird-flu virus samples to the WHO. China had already done this. Moreover, while Indonesia had stopped sending physical samples of the virus, it had continued to collect materials and to send the sequence data to the WHO. Clearly, Jakarta was not trying to hold the rest of the world hostage but merely attempting to address a pressing national problem.

The central issue for the Indonesian government is that it needs a supply of adequate vaccine to deal with the public health time-bomb it is sitting on. Indonesia has been more severely affected than any other country by H5N1. Today the virus is endemic in Indonesia's poultry population and people are continuing to die from it, with Indonesia accounting for 38% of all reported human deaths.

Indonesia is the fourth most populous country in the world and the stakes are very high. The government has done its calculations: first, the global supply of any treatment will necessarily be limited and it will not be able to afford most vaccines, especially with the financial difficulties it would face with a pandemic; and second, it needs a vaccine developed from local strains of the flu for greatest effectiveness. In this respect, the WHO system does not satisfy the needs of a country like Indonesia. The organisation expects its member states to send in samples of all avian flu isolates, human and animal.

The samples are kept in four WHO collaborating centres, located in the developed world (UK, Japan, US and Australia), while the data is fed into in a password-protected database, located in the United States. So a country like Indonesia is expected to give over virus samples for free and let the big pharmaceutical manufacturers use the information to produce their own proprietary drugs. This is exactly what was happening with CSL.

What Indonesia and other countries struggling with bird flu need is for the WHO and others to help them develop their capacity to produce their own vaccines themselves. But patenting, which developing countries are being forced to accept and follow, always blocks this. The problem is a stark one of narrow commercial interests versus broad public interests. When developing countries, led by Thailand, tried to change the WHO's avian-flu sample distribution system last June so that it would be restricted to non-commercial purposes, they were flatly told that this was not possible.

But people are now starting to say, "Well, yes, Indonesia has a point. Both the vaccine and the technology used to produce it should be shared. Avian influenza is a ‘public health' problem requiring a ‘public good' response." And in Indonesia, groups like the Sebindo union are insisting that any human vaccine against bird flu should be made available for free. But this will not happen unless people seriously challenge the patent system, which serves little purpose in the health field except to make more money for shareholders and chief executives of multinational drug companies.

Punishing the poor

More and more people are convinced that the official responses to bird flu have little to do with public health and much more with power politics and profit-making. Local resistance is thus gradually building, giving rise to tensions between the various levels of government that have to contend with the anger of their people and the international agencies where corporate lobbies are entrenched. It is also why greater effort, including military force and economic sanctions, are now being used to impose the reforms.

The corporate vision of globalised, fully-integrated factory farms and slaughterhouses churning out standardised birds for supermarket shelves - people already call it "Big Chicken" for the level of control being promoted - is bring drilled into decision makers more than ever. The threat of a bird-flu pandemic is putting the vision into practice far more quickly and far more profoundly than could ever have been achieved without it. But the pain this is causing to those crushed under the reforms, not to mention the health risk that is being posed for the planet, is overwhelming.

The flip side of the corporate bonanza is that it is annihilating the traditional poultry systems and poultry biodiversity that hundreds of millions of people depend on for their food security and livelihoods. In so doing, it is also destroying the foundations for a long-term solution to bird flu. As we are starting to see in Indonesia and elsewhere, people simply have no choice but to resist.

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