Editorial: Factory farming toll rises in Asia

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, March 2004:

“We are preparing to campaign against burying birds with
influenza alive,” Voice-4-Animals founder Changkil Park e-mailed
from Seoul, South Korea, as the winter avian flu pandemic peaked,
and frantic officials and poultry workers struggled to contain it by
killing all the birds believed to be at risk. “I hope animal people
will have some ideas for us about how animal advocates should view
the massive inhumane treatment of birds,” Changkil Park added,
seeming to speak for thousands whose feelings ranged from shock to
Finding any good in the often unspeakably cruel culling of
more than 100 million chickens and other birds is admittedly
The World Bank has pledged to finance rebuilding the
Southeast Asian poultry industry, moreover, which will probably
mean even more intensive promotion of factory farm methods in the
very near future. If Southeast Asian egg producers adopt the routine
live maceration or burial of “spent” hens that has become standard in
U.S. agribusiness, described elsewhere in this edition, the World
Bank involvement may help to institutionalize some of the cruelty
that is now horrifying television news viewers throughout the world.

Along with the bad news about birds have come reports from
Vietnam and Guangdong province, China, that dog consumption
increased during the avian flu plague. This is not because consumers
who could barely afford to eat chicken once a week are now eating
dogs instead. Rather, the relatively small numbers of Vietnamese
and Guangdonians who can afford to eat dogs are apparently eating
more, in the misguided hope that dog meat might fortify them against
the deadly H5N1 flu virus variant.
Despite the bad news, however, there is cause for cautious
hope in many aspects of the epidemic. At the very least the avian
flu outbreaks vindicate animal advocates in opposition to factory
farming, which incubated H5N1, and cockfighting, which helped to
spread it, and reinforces virtually every argument for vegetarianism.
Most significantly, many Southeast Asian leaders, news
media, and ordinary citizens have acknowledged emotional distress
over the bird-killing itself, as well as about the huge economic
losses from it. Some prominent officials have openly grieved for the
birds, or at least specific pet birds. Some have put their careers
and possibly their lives on the line to protect wildlife against mob
killing, spilling over from attacks on nearby factory farms.
Even while defending the culling as essential to protect
public health, and noting that failed agricultural vaccination
apparently helped to create H5N1, countless Southeast Asians have
voiced the thought that there must be a better way to save human
lives and livelihoods, if only they could find it.
The avian flu pandemic of 2003-2004 will almost certainly not
be the pivotal event that turns Southeast Asia and the world away
from cruelly exploiting and eating chickens at a rate of consumption
ten times greater than for all other warm-blooded animals combined.
Yet it may become a landmark event in bringing about policy-level
reconsideration of linking human food security as closely to factory
farming as has occurred during the past half century.
The rapid spread of avian flu in many forms among the poultry
flocks of at least 12 nations shows again, on the biggest scale so
far, that factory farming is inherently unhealthy for both the
animals involved and the people who work with them and eat them.
Under political, economic, and cultural pressure to provide “a
chicken in every pot,” decision-makers at every level are trying to
duck that reality. Every method from genetic engineering to killing
animals with early stone age weapons has already been deployed to try
to save factory farming –and not jus tlately. Authorities around
the world have killed livestock by the millions at least seven times
to control disease linked to factory farming since the 1996 British
discovery that mad cow disease can cause the inevitably fatal
Creutzfeld-Jakob Disease in humans.
In Southeast Asia alone, Taiwan killed 3.8 million pigs,
sheep, and cattle in 1997 due to hoof-and-mouth disease. Hong Kong
killed 1.5 million poultry and caged pet birds in Hong Kong in
January 1998, after H5N1 was first identified as a killer of human
children. Malaysia killed 800,000 pigs in 1999 to try to eradicate
the Nipah virus. Also a killer of children, Nipah virus is now known
to have crossed into pigs from fruit bats, after rainforest logging
and fires drove the bats into closer proximity to pigs in quest of
food. Nipah virus became epidemic when it encounted pigs who were
raised in huge concentrations.
Then came Sudden Acute Respiratory Syndrome in 2002-2003,
killing more than 900 people worldwide, mostly in China and Vietnam.
The high-volume killing undertaken in response to each
disease outbreak is not only to protect enormous investments in
infrastructure, though certainly that is a major motivation,
especially when the disease, like hoof-and-mouth, is not
potentially deadly to humans. Factory farming is also seen as
essential to food production, both in the U.S. and Europe, where
fewer than one person in 20 works in agriculture, and in Southeast
Asia, where less than 50 years ago famines killed more than 20
million Chinese.
Vegetarians typically are aware that beans and tofu made from
soy beans could supply the protein needs of all the world with just a
fraction of the use of land, water, and other resources that now go
into producing meat, but much that well-informed vegetarians mistake
for common knowledge is still unknown to almost everyone else. Soy
beans are native to Southeast Asia and tofu was invented there, yet
the technology and commercial production methods that are
increasingly establishing soy and tofu as U.S. and European dietary
stables are not yet widely known or used in most of Asia, Africa,
and Latin America.
An increasingly wide opportunity is developing in Southeast
Asia to help demonstrate the potential of vegetarianism, embraced by
choice, to people who might welcome an alternative to factory
farming if they understood that “no meat” and “no hunger” can be
complimentary ways of life.
The cultural legacy of vegetarianism in much of Southeast
Asia has long been associated with religious asceticism and
renunciation of worldly things, as among the vegetarian followers of
Isaiah, John the Baptist, Jesus, and St. Francis. The choice of
Buddhist and Hindu monks and nuns to be vegetarian has often been
misinterpreted by meat-eaters as representing an altruistic choice by
the holy to leave their share of animal products to others in greater
need. Thus there has not been much recognition that vegetarianism,
associated by most people with deprivation of meat, can in truth be
a choice of abundance.
The argument that vegetarianism enhances personal health has
meanwhile been reinforced by the evidence that meat-eating dependent
upon raising animals in unnatural concentrations is adverse to public
health–especially in Guangdong, where the four deadliest flu
epidemics in recorded history emerged in 1918, 1957, 1968, and
1977. The argument for the collective benefit resulting from
vegetarianism could have especially strong resonance in
Confucian-influenced societies, which emphasize acting for the
collective good.

Fear and guilt

Migratory wild birds have carried countless avian flu strains
for millennia. Southeast Asia, attracting by far the greatest
congregations of migratory birds in the world, with a warm, moist
climate that makes every swamp a viral incubator, is the global flu
hub. Every form of flu originated as an avian disease. Most strains
afflicting humans have come to us through domestic livestock,
usually with pigs as intermediary between poultry and people.
Yet with a few dramatic exceptions such as the global flu
epidemic of 1918, the most deadly avian flus have rarely spread far,
or fast, because until factory farming was introduced to southern
China as part of forced modernization under Mao tse Tung, sick wild
birds seldom fell or left their droppings where tens of thousands of
stressed domestic animals with already weakened immune systems could
become carriers overnight.
The avian flu outbreaks in Southeast Asia and the smaller
outbreaks of less threatening strains in the mid-Atlantic states of
the U.S. have in common that they exploded after the viruses came
into contact with unnatural concentrations of chickens, ducks, and
Certainly various avian flu strains including the deadly H5N1
strain soon attacked small free-roaming flocks of domestic birds as
well, especially in Vietnam. Even in Vietnam, however, H5N1
appears to have hit factory farms first, by many weeks, before
infecting the relatively scattered and isolated small flocks.
The usual mechanism by which the virus spread into small
flocks appears to have been the transport and exchange of birds in
connection with cockfighting–a traditional pastime of undereducated
rural poor people on every continent, typically also associated with
gambling, drug abuse, and organized crime.
That link, like the parallels in the Southeast Asian
bird-killing to standard U.S. practice, is further explored
elsewhere in this edition.
Meanwhile, animal advocates must recognize through feelings of
understandable horror, anger, and depression at how more than 100
million birds were killed that the cruelty associated with it appears
to have been driven almost entirely by panic and lack of readily
apparent alternatives, in societies with low literacy and little
awareness of how to prevent disease, but enduring fear of epidemics.
The rest of the world was relatively unaffected by the killer
flus of 1957, 1968, and 1977, but the wretched deaths of whole
villages and urban neighborhoods were among the formative memories of
many people now in Southeast Asian leadership positions.
H5N1 kills children, with a death rate of 78% among known
cases. For several decades both governments and nonprofit agencies
have sought fairly successfully to curb birth rates in rural
Southeast Asia with the promise that modern medicine can ensure that
enough children from small families will survive to adulthood that
their parents need not fear destitution if they focus their resources
on birthing and raising just one or two offspring.
When a disease sweeps through that strikes mainly children
and makes modern medicine look helpless, panic is not only
predictable but inevitable.
Birds were gassed and then buried or burned where the
technology to gas them was available, but were merely buried alive
with heavy machinery at most sites. The World Health Organization
estimated that as many as 15,000 people inadvertently exposed
themselves to H5N1 in Vietnam alone during hasty efforts to cull
chickens without adequate equipment. Across Southeast Asia desperate
people who lacked other means of quickly killing and disposing of
chickens while minimizing direct contact often resorted to burning
chickens alive.
Misplaced faith in fire as a cheap purgative was most evident
in Bali, Indonesia. As many as 4.7 million chickens died from H5N1
during a six-month official pretense that the epidemic was not avian
flu. After weeks of further chicken deaths while promised
government culls amounted mostly to gruesome photo-ops, officials
burned 228,000 chickens alive on February 6, amid erroneous rumors
that children were dying. The next day the Hindu hamlets of
Bolangan, Utu, and Senganan, near the epi-center of the H5N1
outbreak, burned another 2,500 infected chickens as part of a
“Pecaruan Durmanggala purification ritual.”
“The ritual is aimed at purifying and cleansing the areas
from the evil impact of avian influenza,” a temple priest explained
to Wahyoe Boediwardhana of the Jakarta Post.
The horror of the mass killings, by whatever means, cannot
be understated.
Almost immediately after the chicken burials and burnings in
Thailand, many of the participants prayed for forgiveness of the
suffering that they had inflicted on the chickens. Political leaders
organized and funded the ceremonies.
Such rites are held to relieve human angst. They do nothing
for the animals, and often reek of hypocrisy, as when the Dalai
Lama led services for the pigs who were killed in Taiwan in 1997.
“Be kind to animals” was barely discernible, if at all, among his
Yet some comparisons of attitude are in order.
Religious figures have conducted similar rites for the
millions of animals who were killed in Britain during the past decade
to control mad cow disease and hoof-and-mouth disease. Few if any of
the slaughter participants have been reported among the worshippers.
ANIMAL PEOPLE is unaware of anyone seeking divine forgiveness
for killing animals en masse to control disease in the U.S.
A cynical view of the Thai rituals might hold that the
worshippers were only relearning the use of religion to excuse
atrocity. Yet the exercise of seeking forgiveness begins by
confessing that whatever was done was wrong, even if the offender
meant no evil and did not know what else to do in a crisis. It is
not to be confused with indifference or denial.
Rising with the smoke from joss sticks and smouldering
chicken carcasses may be growing recognition that factory farming
should not be part of the future direction of Southeast Asia–and the
world. Animal advocates, by making our voices heard, have an
unparalleled opportunity, indeed an obligation, to encourage and
amplify this perspective.

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