Poultry business too serious to be left to industry

By Sunita Narain
Published: Wednesday 15 March 2006

The news that Indian poultry in parts of Maharashtra and Gujarat have been detected with the deadly avian influenza virus may have temporarily shaken chicken eaters in the country. But it will be a mistake to believe that we have contained the problem, simply because we have culled (killed and buried) some hundred thousand birds and may vaccinate in the coming days some hundred thousand more chicken. We are simply missing the point: the mutating virus is not about birds but about the practice of 'cultivating' these birds and how it is changing in the modern food industry.

It is important to understand that the world's favourite chicken is increasingly grown in places known as "factory farms". Unlike the traditional backyard or household poultry, these operations are highly automated and industrialised where thousands of live birds are squeezed into spaces so small that they cannot move. The chicken is vaccinated time and again to prevent diseases; it is fed everything from antibiotics to additives in its feed to promote growth in this profitable production system.

The business is built on the model of large-scale vertically integrated agri-business companies. Simply put, it means that a few large companies franchise chicken growing to contract growers, to whom they supply the newly hatched chicken and all other materials, like feed, vitamins, vaccines and antibiotics till the chicken is taken back for sale or export. In the us, for instance, only four companies control 60 per cent of the broiler chicken industry. Tyson Foods, which calls itself the world's largest protein producer, has sales of above us $26 billion annually. This company and others are now moving into Asia, which is itself fast moving towards this model of food business. In Thailand, for instance, the Food and Agriculture Organisation (fao) notes in its report on bird flu that chicken exports are controlled by the 10 largest integrators. The fact that this business is so highly integrated -- a single company breeds the chickens, makes the vaccines, manufactures the feed and the additives -- that is virtually impossible to regulate.

In India, Venkateshwara Hatcheries -- Venky's India Ltd -- is such an integrator company, working in the Nandurbar district, where bird flu hit. The scale and control of this firm gives it the power to cover up -- as indeed did Venky's in Nandurbar -- and it can impair public health with impunity.

The world is more vulnerable to disease because of the nature of the business. Farmers have coped with avian diseases for centuries. Farmers have also coped with the mutants of various viruses, which occur because of the proximity of livestock and because virus strains jump from one creature to another. But now the problem is different. People move from farm to farm, fly from one country to another and could carry the virus with them, turning the problem from local to global within days, even hours. This is why the world is scared that this virus, if it mutates to transmit directly from human to human, could create a pandemic.

The problem is also that in this model of growing chicken there is a highly conducive environment for the virus. Chickens breed in environments -- tightly confined, often poorly ventilated with exposure to chemicals, blood and faecal matter -- where the disease can spread, can spread fast. In this environment, the birds also have lowered immunity -- because of their genetic uniformity and need for frequent vaccination. In other words, these poor creatures are almost literally sitting ducks when the disease hits.

This fact is clear when we understand that as yet little is known about the origins and spread of the disease. Wild migratory birds, natural carriers of the virus, have been widely indicted with little evidence. fao , in its report in the aftermath of the avian influenza outbreaks in Asia, says the source of the virus is not officially reported "although it is openly mentioned in Cambodia that it was introduced by a consignment of chicken imported by a private company from Thailand". The tales (anecdotal) are similar in other countries as well, says the agency.

If this is the case, then clearly, what is needed is to better regulate the industrial processes to grow chicken so that the virus does not breed and does not grow. The business needs to improve the genetic stock of the birds and raise their immunity against diseases, like traditional backyard poultry farmers do.

But instead of reforming the poultry industry the business of the flu is ending up promoting the very industry and its practices. In fact, it is destroying the livelihood of the very people who practice a different kind of poultry, the small and marginal farmers.

After the avian flu hit Asia, fao told governments that while it would be possible to tighten biosafety in commercial poultry farms, it would be impossible do it for non-commercial enterprises, such as backyard production systems, where flocks forage outdoors. Its recommendation was that animal production should move to larger farms, where surveillance is possible. Danielle Nierenberg, who researches this sector at the Washington-based Worldwatch Institute reports that this led Vietnam in April 2005 to impose a ban on live poultry markets and asking farms to convert to factory-style methods. Thailand plans to follow suit. The virus is clearly and most certainly deadly and not only because it mutates.

fao itself reports that smallholder poultry is critical for livelihood and food (nutrition) security in vast parts of the poor world.

Food (and chicken) then is too serious a business to be left to industry alone. This lesson must be learnt.

--Sunita Narain

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