Who Pays for Bird Flu?

Fifty years ago, American chicken farmers found that by keeping their birds in sheds they could produce chickens for the table more cheaply and with less work than by traditional farmyard methods. The new method spread: chickens disappeared from fields into long, windowless sheds. Factory farming was born.

It isn’t called “factory farming” merely because those sheds look like factories. Everything about the production method is geared towards turning live animals into machines for converting grain into meat or eggs at the lowest possible cost.

Walk into such a shed – if the producer will let you – and you will find up to 30,000 chickens. The National Chicken Council, the trade association for the US chicken industry, recommends a stocking density of 85 square inches per bird – less than a standard sheet of typing paper. When the chickens approach market weight, they cover the floor completely. No chicken can move without having to push through other birds. In the egg industry, hens can barely move at all, because they are crammed into wire cages, which makes it possible to stack them in tiers, one above the other.

Environmentalists point out that this production method is unsustainable. For a start, it relies on the use of fossil fuel energy to light and ventilate the sheds, and to transport the grain eaten by the chickens. When this grain, which humans could eat directly, is fed to chickens, they use some of it to create bones and feathers and other body parts that we cannot eat. So we get less food back than we put into the birds – and less protein, too – while disposing of the concentrated chicken manure causes serious pollution to rivers and ground water.

Animal-welfare advocates protest that crowding the chickens keeps them from forming a natural flock, causes them stress, and, in the case of laying hens, prevents them from even stretching their wings. The air in the sheds is high in ammonia from bird feces, which are usually allowed to pile up for months – and in some cases for a year or more – before being cleaned out. Medical experts warn that because the birds are routinely fed antibiotics to keep them growing in such crowded, filthy, and stressful conditions, antibiotic-resistant bacteria could cause a public-health threat.

Yet, despite these well-founded criticisms, over the last 20 years factory farming – not only of chickens, but also of pigs, veal calves, dairy cows, and, in outdoor feedlots, cattle – has spread rapidly in developing countries, especially in Asia. Now we are discovering that the consequences may be far more deadly than we ever imagined.

As University of Ottawa virologist Earl Brown put it after a Canadian outbreak of avian influenza, “high-intensity chicken rearing is a perfect environment for generating virulent avian flu viruses.”

Other experts agree. In October 2005, a United Nations task force identified as one of the root causes of the bird flu epidemic, “farming methods which crowd huge numbers of animals into small spaces.”

Supporters of factory farming often point out that bird flu can be spread by free-range flocks, or by wild ducks and other migrating birds, who may join the free-range birds to feed with them or drop their feces while flying overhead. But, as Brown has pointed out, viruses found in wild birds are generally not very dangerous.

On the contrary, it is only when these viruses enter a high-density poultry operation that they mutate into something far more virulent. By contrast, birds that are reared by traditional methods are likely to have greater resistance to disease than the stressed, genetically similar birds kept in intensive confinement systems. Moreover, factory farms are not biologically secure. They are frequently infested with mice, rats, and other animals that can bring in diseases.

So far, a relatively small number of human beings have died from the current strain of avian influenza, and it appears that they have all been in contact with infected birds. But if the virus mutates into a form that is transmissible between humans, the number of deaths could run into the hundreds of millions.

Governments are, rightly, taking action to prepare for this threat. Recently, the US Senate approved spending $8 billion to stockpile vaccines and other drugs to help prevent a possible bird flu epidemic. Other governments have already spent tens of millions on vaccines and other preventive measures.

What is now clear, however, is that such government spending is really a kind of subsidy to the poultry industry. Like most subsidies, it is bad economics. Factory farming spread because it seemed to be cheaper than more traditional methods. In fact, it was cheaper only because it passed some of its costs on to others – for example, to people who lived downstream or downwind from the factory farms, and could no longer enjoy clean water and air.

Now we see that these were only a small part of the total costs. Factory farming is passing far bigger costs – and risks – on to all of us. In economic terms, these costs should be “internalized” by the factory farmers rather than being shifted onto the rest of us.

That won’t be easy to do, but we could make a start by imposing a tax on factory-farm products until enough revenue is raised to pay for the precautions that governments now have to take against avian influenza. Then we might finally see that chicken from the factory farm really isn’t so cheap after all.