Blame ‘Big Chicken’
By Wendy Orent
Sunday, March 19, 2006
Chicken never has been cheaper. A whole one can be bought for little more than the price of a cup of coffee from Starbucks. But the industrial farming methods that make ever-cheaper chicken possible also may have created the lethal strain of bird flu virus, H5N1, that threatens to set off a global pandemic.
According to University of Ottawa flu virologist Earl Brown, lethal bird flu is entirely man-made, first evolving in commercially produced poultry in Italy in 1878. The highly pathogenic H5N1 is descended from a strain that first appeared in Scotland in 1959.
People have been living with backyard flocks of poultry since the dawn of civilization. But it wasn’t until poultry production became modernized and birds were raised in much larger numbers and concentrations that a virulent bird flu evolved. Somehow, the virus that arose in Scotland found its way to China, where, as H5N1, it has been raging for more than a decade.
Industrial poultry-raising moved from the West to Asia in the last few decades and has begun to supplant backyard flocks there.
Poultry may represent a family’s greatest wealth. The birds often are not eaten until they die of old age or illness. The cost of the virus to people who have raised birds for months or years is incalculable and the compensation risible: In Thailand, farmers have been offered one-third of their birds’ value since the outbreak of bird flu.
Some researchers still blame migratory birds for the relentless spread of the bird flu virus. But Martin Williams, a conservationist and bird expert in Hong Kong, contends that wild birds are more often victims than carriers.
Researchers concede that the global poultry trade, much of which is illicit, plays a far larger role in spreading the virus.
The Nigerian government traced its outbreak to the illegal importation of day-old chicks. Illegal trading in fighting cocks brought the virus from Thailand to Malaysia in fall 2005. And it is probable that H5N1 first spread from Qinghai to Russia and Kazakhstan last summer through the sale of contaminated poultry.
But an increasingly hysterical world targets migratory birds.
In early February, a flock of geese, too cold and tired to fly, rested on the frozen waters of the Danube Delta in Romania. A group of 15 men set upon them, tossed some into the air, tore off others’ heads and used still-living birds as soccer balls. They said they did this because they feared the bird flu would enter their village through the geese. Many conservationists worry that what happened in Romania is a foreshadowing of the mass destruction of wild birds.
Meanwhile, deadly H5N1 is washing up on the shores of Europe.
Brown, the virologist, says the commercial poultry industry, which caused the catastrophe in the first place, stands to benefit most. The conglomerates will more and more dominate the poultry-rearing business. Some experts insist that will be better for us.
For instance, epidemiologist Michael Osterholm at the University of Minnesota contends that the "single greatest risk to the amplification of the H5N1 virus, should it arrive in the U.S. through migratory birds, will be in free-range birds … often sold as a healthier food, which is a great ruse on the American public."
The truly great ruse is that industrial poultry farms are the best way to produce chickens — that they are keeping the world safe from backyard poultry and migratory birds. But what’s going to be on our tables isn’t the biggest problem.
The real tragedy is what’s happened in Asia to people who can’t afford cheap, industrial chicken. And the real victims of industrially produced, lethal H5N1 have been wild birds, an ancient way of life and the poor of the Earth, for whom a backyard flock has always represented a measure of autonomy and a bulwark against starvation.
Wendy Orent is the author of "Plague: The Mysterious Past and Terrifying Future of the World’s Most Dangerous Disease."
copyright © 2004 by The Tribune-Review Publishing Co.