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Bird Flu, Rice and Gas Guzzling

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Moshiur Rahman, like so many businessmen today, is a weary fellow, striving to keep his head above the troubled economic waters of our time. But as the obviously exhausted Rahman strives to keep his several companies afloat in Dhaka, Bangladesh, he faces an emerging confluence of crises: bird flu, climate change, rising food process and formidable energy costs. Its all poor Rahman can do to keep the petitioners from his office door, begging for help, credit or crisis management.

Rahman doused his eyes with drops to wash away the Dhaka dust as he listed his numerous responsibilities in the landscape of impoverished Bangladesh's business world. Chief among them are several poultry and egg producer associations he heads, aimed at keeping a chicken in every Bengali pot, or something like that.

The extremely virulent H5N1 avian flu virus hit Bangladesh in 2006, and has now swept over the nation, becoming entrenched in every district and farm of the land. It has likewise spread the length of the great Ganges region, plaguing poultry across eastern India and Pakistan, and driving the price of eggs and protein to levels never previously seen in the region, even in times of war. The nation of Bhutan, which gets al of its chicken and dairy products from India, has ceased importation because of bird flu. A colleague who was just there tells me a single egg costs 25 cents, if one can be found - a hefty price for protein in a country where average rural household income is merely 50 cents a day. All that remains today to keep the children of Bhutan from being growth-stunted and severely malnourished is yak meat.

Fortunately poor Rahman and the thousands of Bangladeshi commercial poultry producers he represents don't have to worry about yaks, or the "blue ear disease" that has been killing off pigs by the tens of thousands across China and Vietnam for the last two years, driving pork prices to record levels. Porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome virus is the germ that causes pigs' ears to turn blue, their sows to abort, and infected adults to hemorrhage. For Vietnam and China the combination of bird flu killing chickens, blue ear slaughtering pigs and soaring rice prices is making food unaffordable for the poorest people in those countries. The loss of poultry as a source of protein is bad for all of the afflicted Asian regions, but especially for Muslim nations like Bangladesh, where alternative pork consumption is not an option.

"Our country is high density with people, and with chickens," Rahman told me earlier this month in his noisy Dhaka office, ringing with outside traffic din and the persistent jingles of cell phones. "Every village, every household, has some chickens. This is really a big problem, these backyard chickens."

Calling the chicken-and-human population of Bangladesh "dense" is an understatement: Bangladesh has about half as many humans as the United States, squashed into a space about the size of the state of Iowa, with about as many chickens. No matter what measures big commercial poultry operators like Rahman take to prevent influenza infection of their flocks, or kill off flocks to stop spread to neighboring farms, the H5N1 virus circulates in those backyard chickens, ducks and wild birds. The microbe is everywhere in Bangladesh and India's neighboring West Bengal and bordering Pakistan - and local scientists and farmers say its presence is now permanent.

One estimate is that bird flu-related losses, alone, have cost the Bangladeshi economy 1.6% of its GDP - a figure Rahman loudly disputes. "It's much more," he insists, "We are affected at every step. Our feed sales are down by 50%, chick sales are down by 65%, and it is driving up all food costs in the country."

According to the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization poultry prices worldwide inflated by 15% between 2005-7, dairy by 90%, maize by 80% and rice by 25%. And between March 2007 to March 2008 all those prices soared much further, including a 74% increase in rice prices globally, and 130% jump for wheat. Those global numbers fail to grasp the extraordinarily sharp inflationary - and, therefore, malnutrition - impact the food trend has on the world's poorest countries like Bangladesh. According to the government rice prices there have soared 70 percent just since January, causing what agricultural advisor A.M.M. Shawkat calls, "a silent famine," across the land.

"Based on a very rough analysis, we estimate that a doubling of food prices over the last three years could potentially push 100 million people in low-income countries deeper into poverty," World Bank President Robert Zoellick said in a speech earlier this month.

There's nothing "potential" about it for Bangladesh, where the Ministry of Agriculture reports that rice cost about 18 taka (the local currency) per kilo in October 2006, and 36 taka/kg this month. In Rahman's calculus this means that villagers, who earn about 100 taka/day for a family of five, must now spend 80 taka daily simply for rice, "which leaves no room to buy chicken." Or much of anything else, for that matter.

Demand is down, even as the costs of producing chickens and eggs are skyrocketing thanks to avian flu. The impact goes far beyond the price of a sack of rice or a dozen eggs: The very structure of the country's agricultural economy is being reshaped, threatening both local diets and development programs. This should matter to Americans, not only because we care about the survival of people all over the world, but also because Bangladesh has been a major recipient of our foreign aid and development money since the nation separated in a civil war from Pakistan in 1971. Among Islamic nations Bangladesh ranks as one of America's best friends.

Two months ago Abdul Hasheems' poultry operations in Pubura Rajason were wiped out by H5N1 and government-mandated culling of all those not killed directly by the virus. The 2000 layer hens Hasheem lost were worth 250 taka each: the government promises to reimburse him at a rate of 70 taka per chicken. "The nearby farm had no bird flu but the government killed those chickens, too," Hasheem's caretaker, Salim, said, taking a pause from the labor of transforming Hasheem's farm into a housing site. He's abandoning the chicken business.

Nearby, Mahidrana Shahid, a handsome young poultry farmer, proudly caressed his new baby boy as he told me that his chickens got sick in the second week of February. "First one died," Shahid recounted in perfect English, "and the second day another one died. Then on the third day 60 chickens died and by the passing of 7 days 100 more were dead. Eventually 500 were dead of the virus. It was very fast." On February 20th the government confirmed that Shahid's birds, their combs and waffles blackened and their bodies rife with virally-induced hemorrhaging, were victims of H5N1. The remainder of his flock was slaughtered, and buried in a pit. Last year Shahid took out a government loan to start his chicken business - now he will be unable to pay back the loan or replace the dead animals. His poultry business is bankrupt.

"I never imagined this," Shahid told me, while booting up his computer to show me pictures of his dying birds.. "The way I protected the chickens was so good. I never employed workers who went to any other farms. I was very careful."

I met other chicken farmers in Bangladesh who told me similar stories. They followed the safety guidelines set down by UN agencies and the Bangladeshi government, yet mysteriously their animals became infected. Cullings ensued, and promised financial compensation from the government was either nonexistent, or far too modest to allow them to restart their businesses. For several years local NGOs, such as the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee (BRAC), and foreign humanitarian groups have tried to bolster the peasant economy of Bangladesh by giving microfinance loans, some as small as $3, to start poultry flocks: now the farmers will be unable to pay back those loans and the impact will ripple through the finances of organizations like the Grameen Bank, whose founder, Muhammad Yunus, was last year's recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize.

Fear of bird flu, coupled with the skyrocketing percentage of people's income required to purchase rice, is causing customer demand to go down, and costs for producers to inflate, al over the region. In Pakistan the cost of a chicken has jumped from around 70 Rs per kilo last year to a record 205 Rs/kg this month, driving household consumption of meat and eggs down by 50 percent, according to the Karachi Wholesalers Poultry Association. Fearing they will be unable to sell their livestock, Pakistani farmers are shutting down their hatchery businesses, which will lead to long-term losses in the industry.

The key reason this region is hard hit by bird flu is rice production. The landscape is dotted by rice paddies, mostly subsistence-scale family operations. And those paddies are homes to ducks, which carry the H5N1 virus without harm to themselves, passing it in their feces into the water. The more land goes into rice production, the greater the duck-borne spread of bird flu. It is a vicious cycle, with poor countries unable to produce or purchase adequate rice to feed their people, who try to compensate by growing more rice for their family consumption, which in turn provides more habitats for ducks, thereby worsening the chicken crisis, resulting in severe protein deficiencies throughout rural regions.

Local analysts say half the Bangladeshi population is now living half-starved, every day.

In a press release this week [April 21] the World Bank's Zoellick said that, "For more than 2 billion people, high food prices are now a matter of daily struggle, sacrifice, and, for some, even survival, with no apparent relief in sight. Malnutrition threatens to harm not only this generation but the generation to come. This is a test for the international community that we cannot afford to fail. We must make globalization work for all."

Zoellick's urgent plea was prompted by a study done by the Bank's Maros Ivanic and Will Martin, which found that the costs of all basic foods have soared in every country in the world over the last year. And while it is tough for Americans to spend twice as much for a sack of flour this year compared to last, it is the poorest people in the planet that are paying the greatest prices. According to Ivanic and Martin the world decreased poverty by about 0.68 percent annually starting from 1984. But at the current rate of annual poverty increase induced by rising food inflation the entire global 22 year improvement in impoverishment will be completely erased by 2012.

"A silent tsunami which knows no borders is sweeping the world," declared the UN World Food Programme this week. The Nobel Prize-winning Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) issued an alert this week saying that child malnutrition is rising fast not only in southern Asia, but throughout sub-Saharan Africa and parts of Latin America.

There are many reasons why this nightmare is now unfolding, including viruses, climate shifts that have stopped rainfall in former rice-producing areas, the increased numbers of hungry humans and rising oil prices. The record-breaking $118/barrel cost of crude oil translates into soaring prices for everything from fertilizers and pesticides, to transport of harvests to marketplaces. On an urgent level the World Food Program says it needs $750 million for famine relief, and the World Bank wants millions more to bolster agricultural production.

Japan's Prime Minister Fukuda has agreed to put the food crisis at the top of the agenda for the July summit of the G8 nations, UK Prime Minister Brown has committed his nation to providing millions of pounds in emergency aid. And both the U.S. Congress and White House are now mulling over various emergency aid options. This is all well and good, but it will solve nothing.

Genuine policy solutions to what guarantees to be an escalating food/disease/energy/climate crisis require a willingness on the part of all nations, rich and poor, to make painful decisions about global governance. Bangladesh might be able to avoid food riots and starvation in 2008 through food subsidies, backed by grants or loans from the World Bank, IMF or bilateral partners like the United States. But what will it do in 2009? In 2010? What will all the nations of the world do in coming years?

Unless the OPEC nations are willing to increase petroleum production, and the major gas guzzlers (the U.S., EU, China and India) are ready to cut consumption by massive amounts, the cost of energy can only continue to soar. If the wealthy nations cannot do more to assist the poor in their efforts to confront diseases like bird flu, porcine blue ear and crop infestations the cost of food, and decline in human protein intake, will only worsen with time. Unless the people of the world are willing to conserve, and share, shrinking agricultural water supplies the increasing desertification of China, Australia and Africa, brought on by climate change and deforestation, will only hasten, further reducing global food production. And without direct investment in farming and livestock production in poor countries that transforms agriculture from crude manual labor into efficient, mechanized production and delivery their cycles of poverty will never end, and more likely worsen in coming years.

Rahman - the poultry man in Dhaka - knows the answer for H5N1: "It's not going away. We have to control it," he insists. The same could well be said for oil price rises, climate change, food cost inflation and the threat of widening famine and poverty. If Americans can't resist setting their summer thermostats at 68 degrees, the worst is yet to come.