Bengal's fowl legacy

Bird flu panic may have run its course in the UK but in West Bengal an altogether more dramatic dram

Two years ago the British press hit the panic button after the H5N1 strain of bird flu was found in a dead swan on the Fife coast. The Sun called it "the day we all dreaded"; the Daily Mail spoke of a "deadly delay" in confirming the virus; and, in a self-defeating headline, the Observer pleaded "Don't panic". Although rarely made explicit, the implication was that we were all at risk of contracting the lethal disease.

The scaremongering subsided without a single person catching bird flu in the UK.

Outbreaks are still reported prominently, as happened this January when three mute swans were found dead in Dorset after contracting H5N1. But nowadays the disease is generally treated as it should have been from the beginning - as a serious threat to birds, not to public health. People are rarely infected with H5N1. When they do catch the virus, it is from close and prolonged contact with infected poultry. Although the virus could one day mutate into a disease that is passed by human beings, H5N1 is at present a nasty flu virus carried by birds.

But thousands of miles away a more dramatic bird flu drama is being played out. In January an outbreak was confirmed on poultry farms in West Bengal, the Indian state that abuts Bangladesh's western border. Over the following weeks nearly all the chickens, ducks and geese in the state - more than 3.4 million birds - were culled. Most of the slaughtered poultry belonged to poor farmers who were rearing local breeds of chicken in backyards.

Understandably, many farmers were unwilling to hand over perfectly healthy birds that were essential to the household economy, and they often resisted, claiming the compensation being offered was inadequate. Some of the culling was shambolic; there were reports of teams leaving sacks of dead birds to rot in fields.

Over the following weeks the impact of the culling rippled through the state. Thousands of shuttlecock makers in the town of Uluberia were left in dire straits as the supply of raw material - goose feathers - dwindled to nothing. It was even reported that the Badminton Association of India temporarily had to cancel all training sessions ahead of the Olympic selection process because of a shortage of shuttlecocks.

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation commended the Indian government's successful efforts to contain the outbreak, but local people question the huge environmental and social cost of the culling. West Bengal was one of the world's most dynamic centres of poultry farming, with a priceless stock of biodiversity. The culling may well have eliminated local breeds, many of which are uniquely adapted to local conditions. Many people would have preferred a more nuanced response to the situation. According to the Indian online magazine Frontline, there were reports in October 2007 that inadequate action was being taken to stop bird flu crossing from Bangladesh, where 140 outbreaks were reported last year. It might have been possible, says the magazine, to have set up a "ring of immunity", two to three kilometres wide, along the frontier; by vaccinating all the poultry in this area, the virus's entry could have been barred.

Instead, the government opted for wholesale slaughter. Those likely to emerge stronger from the carnage are the big integrated poultry companies, which have been growing very rapidly in India in recent years and can recover quickly from the culling. One such, Arambagh Hatcheries, is poised to sign a deal with Japan's Marubeni Corporation to supply 1,000 tonnes of chicken a month. The export market does not accept meat from vaccinated chickens. It seems clear that a decision has been taken to safeguard the interests of the export companies at the expense of small-scale farmers.

Yet in the longer term such a strategy is dangerous; and not just for India. Global production of poultry has increased tenfold in the past 40 years, as people in both the developed and the richer developing countries have acquired tastes for roast chicken and chicken nuggets. But all over the world the big poultry companies purchase the genetic material for their chickens from just four livestock genetics companies. There is a good reason for this, as these companies have selectively bred chickens that grow very quickly, and provide the tender, white meat that the export market craves.

This process is, however, inexorably eliminating local breeds. In contrast to chickens bred intensively, which require special industrialised feed and are vulnerable to disease, local breeds eat scraps of food and are hardy. These qualities might be in urgent demand one day if a pandemic were to wipe out the factory-farmed chickens. Apart from destroying the livelihoods of thousands of peasant families, the decision to cull millions of chickens in West Bengal has diminished the precious pool of avian biodiversity.

This article first appeared in the 24 March 2008 issue of the New Statesman, The truth about Tibet