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Avian Flu: ome more indictment of unsafe industrial food production

Commentary- 20 February 2004
Pesticide Action Network (PAN) Asia and the Pacific calls for more ecologically sustainable, safe and humane poultry farming practices.

"The avian influenza epidemic is just the latest in a string food and health scares to hit the headlines. This is not an isolated development, it is symptomatic of the serious problems we are facing with the way we produce our food," notes Sarojeni V. Rengam, executive director of PAN AP. "From the Japanese Encephalitis and Nipah Virus crisis that hit Malaysian pig farms a few years ago, to the on-going threat of mad-cow disease, and the frequent reports of pesticide residues in food and water. These are all a result of the unsafe, intensive, chemical dependent, industrialised agriculture and animal husbandry that is practiced today. It is not surprising that people and animals are dying from this profit oriented ‘conveyor belt’ food production system," adds Rengam.

To date avian influenza or ‘bird flu’ in chickens has devastated 10 Asian countries and claimed the lives of 22 people. The World Health Organisation (WHO) reports that the H5N1 bird flu virus has emerged in South Korea, Viet Nam, Japan, Thailand, Cambodia, China, Laos and Indonesia, while weaker strains have been reported in Taiwan and Pakistan. At present the disease is known to be transmitted through direct contact with the infected birds. The present avian flue outbreak first appeared in Vietnam in July 2003. The H5N1 virus has a history of causing disastrous effects especially on poultry that dates back to cases reported since the 1960s. Infected chickens haemorrhage to death within 24 hours.

A Tragedy Waiting to Happen

"The bird flu epidemic raging through Asia is symptomatic of a sick, unsustainable process by which we produce our food," stresses Dr. Meriel Watts, coordinator of PAN Aotearoa/New Zealand. "Cramming tens of thousands of birds into cramped sheds is not only cruel and inhumane, it is a human health disaster in waiting. Because of the stressful and unhygienic way in which these birds are kept, they have to be force fed antibiotics to manage the diseases that can so easily run rampant. The result is lowered levels of disease resistance, and increased risk to human health through resistance to antibiotics."

Popularly known as ‘factory farming’, the intensive methods used in industrial poultry farming are largely to be blamed for the recent avian flu outbreak. Chickens are often crammed in comparably smaller coops and cages, or long sheds that can house thousands of birds, and outbreaks of infections can easily spread. The accumulated decaying feces leave the chicken breathing ammoniac fumes day in and day out. Such rearing methods keep the birds in a constant state of misery and stress that weakens their natural immune system, making them highly susceptible to diseases. As a means of solving this problem, intensive farming methods use high doses of antibiotics in chicken feed, and growth hormones are used to increase the speed of the chickens’ growth. As noted by the World Watch 2003 report, chickens often cannot walk properly because they have been pumped full of growth-promoting antibiotics. Farmers often do not use these drugs due to illness in the animals but because drug companies and extension agencies have convinced them that the antibiotics will ensure the health of their birds and increase their weight. Since the chickens are kept in close contact with each other 24 hours a day in their cramped coops, this facilitates the easy spread of diseases.

As a long time consultant on environmental health and sustainable agriculture, and member of New Zealand's Agricultural Compounds and Veterinary Medicines Advisory Committee, Dr. Watts advocates that, "Governments should take heed of this latest food crisis and outlaw the rearing of chickens in overcrowded factory farms. Chickens can be sustainably reared in free-range, organic systems that dramatically improves the health of the birds, and consequently also dramatically reduces the risk to human health."

Threat to Human Beings?

According to the FAO, Avian influenza was first identified over 100 years ago during an outbreak in Italy. Since then, the disease has cropped up at irregular intervals in all world regions. In addition to the current outbreak in Asia, recent epidemics have occurred in Hong Kong in 1997-1998 (which killed 6 people) and 2003, in the Netherlands in 2003, and in the Republic of Korea in 2003.

The WHO has issued warnings that the H5N1 avian flu virus could kill millions around the globe if it combined with a human influenza virus to create a new highly contagious strain, which is transmissible among humans. While WHO has no concrete evidence of human-to-human transmission so far, it has warned that it could not rule out the possibility. Furthermore the U.N.'s Food and Agriculture organization (FAO) stated that despite the mass culling of millions of birds, the H5N1 bug which can cross the species barrier, is still spreading.

According to Dr. Romeo Quijano, of PAN Philippines, "The recent outbreak of Avian flu and its spread to humans in several countries should be taken as a serious warning signal of the devastating effects of an unsustainable, environment destructive, and profit-oriented food production system".
A medical doctor, toxicologist and Professor at the School of Pharmacology with the University of the Philippines, Dr. Quijano asserts that, "the massive use of antibiotics and many other toxic chemicals inherent in the capitalist food production system leads to the weakening of the natural capacity of both animals and humans to co-exist peacefully with microbes. Many of these toxic chemicals are already known to destroy the immune system and produce adverse effects that tend to result in various types of illnesses, including the appearances of infectious diseases never before seen in humans".

PAN AP has also been very concerned about the use of genetic engineering in crops, of which genetic engineered soya, corn and canola are know to be used as animal feed in the poultry, cattle and pig industry. As Dr. Quijano comments, "the biological plausibility of increasing the likelihood of gene pollution and horizontal gene transfer brought about by genetically modified organisms should also be considered as a possible contributory factor. While no clear scientific evidence might exist at the moment that would prove these suspicions, it is in the people's interest that those responsible for the protection of health and the environment to take a precautionary attitude. Governments and international bodies should reverse the reckless globalization policies that sacrifices health and the environment in exchange for perceived short term economic gains where only the big capitalists actually benefit".

Ravages of a Globalized System

FAO has noted that once domestic birds are infected, avian influenza outbreaks can be difficult to control and often cause major economic impacts for poultry farmers in affected countries, since mortality rates are high and infected fowl generally must be destroyed—the technical term is "culled"—in order to prevent the spread of the disease. So far an estimated mass slaughter of 50 million birds has taken place as an immediate step to stem the outbreak. Countries and regions where mass cullings are ongoing include Thailand, Viet Nam, Indonesia, Pakistan, China and Taiwan.

Health experts, who ended two days of urgent talks in Rome at the FAO on February 4 this year, urged countries fighting bird flu to step up co-operation, upgrade hygiene measures, and ensure the early reporting of outbreaks. Among their recommendations was that countries hit by the epidemic launch a vaccination campaign to prevent the spread of the disease among the bird population. This way, the mass culling of flocks outside of infected sites in reaction to outbreaks might therefore be largely avoided and major damage to the livelihoods of rural households and national economies averted. However according to Joseph Domenech, Chief of FAO’s Animal Health Service, culling infected flocks remains the recommended response when the disease is detected. He has also stated that vaccination, when used together with other control measures, such as market and movement management, and good agricultural practices, offers a suitable means to support the suppression of the further spread of the virus.

But groups like the Compassion in World Farming (CIWF) contend that the diseased birds are being disposed of in very cruel methods. CIWF have reported of disposal methods where chickens are thrown into sacks while still alive then dumped into holes in the ground and left to suffocate to death is inhumane! PAN AP supports CIWF’S call for the implementation of a humane slaughter policy with veterinary supervision.

Additionally Dr. Quijano warns that, "hyped-up palliative remedies such as quarantines and massive culling of animals do not adequately address the problem. Worse still, silly public relations gimmicks such as highly publicized feasting of "non-infectious" chicken meat by certain public officials only aggravate mass ignorance. The root cause of the problem must be effectively addressed, namely a food-for-profit production system imposed by a ravaging monopoly capitalist class."
Commenting on the severity of the devastation to the Thai poultry industry at a meeting of Ministers in Bangkok on January 23, 2004 even Thailand’s Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra referred to the spread of the avian flu cases as "the dark side of globalization".

The Booming Chicken Trade in Asia

According to a World Watch report 2003, global meat production has increased more than fivefold since 1950, and factory farming is the fastest growing method of animal production worldwide. Industrialised countries dominate production, but developing countries are rapidly expanding and intensifying their production systems.

According to FAO, Asia has the fastest developing livestock sector. The South East Asia region accounts for approximately one-quarter of world poultry trade (including re-exports from Hong Kong) with China and Thailand the largest exporters. Accounting for 15 percent of global poultry shipments, these two countries are estimated to have exported almost 1.1 million tonnes in 2003, more than half of which went to Japan. To date, many of the major poultry importing countries have banned poultry imports from both countries.

FAO predicts that the impact of countries banning both Thai and Chinese poultry exports would be higher international poultry prices and increasing demand for poultry meat from other major suppliers, such as the United States, Brazil and the EU. This also puts upward pressure on other meat prices, which were already increasing due to current bans on U.S. and Canadian beef due because of concerns over BSE (madcow disease).

The disease impact is likely to be most felt by small-holders and smaller specialised broiler and layer operations, which lack the bio-security measures put in place by the larger commercial units. But what is most disturbing is FAO’s analysis that this has the potential to accelerate trends towards the industrialisation of poultry operations in the affected countries—which PAN AP asserts has been a major contributing factor to the problem in the first place! .

"While we appreciate all the immediate and remedial recommendations, and monetary contributions, the FAO have made to deal with the epidemic, we strongly urge the FAO to adhere to and pursue its earlier recommendation for ‘good agricultural practices—including a re-assessment of the way poultry are produced, marketed and slaughtered—seeking to build up sustainable and healthy agricultural systems’. FAO must find a way to persuade the countries effected to change their current systems of production", urges Rengam. "It is painfully clear that the current system is fatally flawed and is a potential for future disasters. What we need is ecologically based, genuine sustainable agriculture and humane livestock raising practices that place people above profits, and food safety above market driven priorities!", Rengam concludes.

For further information contact: Sarojeni V. Rengam, Pesticide Action Network (PAN) Asia and the Pacific, Penang, Malaysia. Handph: 016 478 9545 (Feb 20-27, 2004) Tel: +604 657 0271/ +604 656 0381. Email: saroj@pc.jaring.my (Feb 20-27), panap@panap.net

Compassion in World Farming News Release 26th January 2004
Factory Farming in the Developing World by Danielle Neirenberg, World Watch May/June 2003
FAO Press Release (RAP 04/02), January 23, 2004
FAO Avian Influenza – Background, http://www.fao.org/ag/againfo/subjects/en/health/diseases-cards/avian_bg.html
FAO Avian Influenza – Special Report,
New York Times, February 5, 2004
Sydney Morning Herald, February 6, 2004
TIME Asia magazine, January 26, 2004
Reuters Report February 5, 2004
WHO Press Release (SEA/PR/1365), January 28, 2004
WHO Website, http://www.who.int/csr/don/2004_02_04/en/

©heal toxics, 2003
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