Let them eat shit

What does the outbreak of avian flu in Suffolk teach us about capitalist factory farming? Eddie Ford outlines a communist alternative

Over the last few weeks we have been provided with a vivid, and quite grisly, insight into the real nature of the food industry - especially the iniquitous system of factory farming, which is ruining the land and degrading our food.

As readers will know, following an outbreak of bird (or avian) flu at the Bernard Matthews turkey farm in Suffolk, almost 160,000 turkeys were slaughtered - never a pretty sight - and then all the sheds which housed the birds were disinfected. Now the Holton plant has been re-opened for business - almost as if nothing had happened. But profits wait for no man and the supermarkets need to daily fill their shelves with cheap, 'appetising' turkey cuts. Frankly, it is almost enough to turn even the most insatiable carnivore into a vegetarian.

When the investigation started, the Bernard Matthews company was less than forthcoming about its business practices - but this is not especially surprising for an outfit whose guiding ethos seems to be 'Let them eat shit'. Thus Matthews have been particularly shifty about its dealings in Hungary. Turkey eggs are regularly sent from the firm's operation in Britain to its farms in Hungary, and the birds reared there are returned 'semi-processed' (use your imagination here) to the Suffolk plant, where the breasts are extracted. Then most of the remaining meat is re-exported back to Hungary to be mainly made into turkey sausage.

Of course, there have been instances of bird flu in Hungary and hence there are 'banned zones' from where meat products are not permitted. Previously, Matthews had righteously insisted that its Hungarian imports came from a site more than 100 miles from any affected area - though this righteousness did not extend to eagerly supplying the government inspectors with its transport logs and so on. However, more or less by accident, the inspectors at the Suffolk plant found a wrapper inside a bin - which strongly indicated that the plant had actually been receiving meat from a Hungarian slaughterhouse just 20 miles from a restricted area.

Despite the fact that the plant has now being re-opened - itself a rather dubious decision - the Food Standards Agency has requested Matthews to keep two large consignments of turkey meat from Hungary off the shelves because of the "remote possibility" that some of the meat may have come from a restricted zone and should not have been imported in the first place. Furthermore, environment secretary, David Miliband, has hinted that Matthews could be prosecuted for lapses in bio-security or for the withholding of relevant information.

As things currently stand, it is still a bit of a mystery as to how bird flu managed to reach Britain. But it has been established that the strains found in Hungary and Britain are genetically 99.96% identical and therefore it is more than reasonable to suggest that the two are linked. Also, this result appears to confirm the hypothesis that the bird flu spread in some way from poultry to poultry, and not from wild bird to poultry, as initially feared - and definitively suggested by Matthews.

Virus strains

Obviously, the Bernard Matthews bird flu occurrence is cause for alarm. Of course, there are hundreds of strains of avian influenza, but only four are known to have caused human infections: H5N1, H7N3, H7N7 and H9N2. Essentially most of these viruses pose little or no real risk to the human population - except for the highly pathogenic H5N1 virus, which, of course, was the strain found in both Suffolk and Hungary.

The H5N1 virus poses the greatest danger to human health for two main reasons. Firstly, it has caused by far the greatest number of human cases of very severe disease and the greatest number of deaths. It has crossed the species barrier to infect humans on at least three occasions in recent years: twice in Hong Kong in 1997 (18 cases with six deaths) and 2003 (two cases with one death), and in the current outbreaks that began in December 2003 and were first recognised in January 2004.

Secondly, there is the risk that the H5N1 virus - if presented with enough opportunities - will develop the characteristics it needs to start another influenza pandemic. The virus has met all prerequisites for the start of a pandemic save one, an ability to spread efficiently to humans and becoming a human to human disease. However, while H5N1 may at the moment be the virus causing the most concern, you cannot rule out the possibility that other types of bird flu might also make the transition and thereby cause a pandemic.

The reasons for the fear of H5N1 are relatively straightforward. The virus can change via two principal mechanisms. The first is a 'reassortment' event, in which genetic material is exchanged between human and avian viruses during co-infection of a human or pig. 'Reassortment' could result in a fully transmissible pandemic virus, announced by a sudden surge of cases with a very explosive spread. The second mechanism is a more gradual process of adaptive mutation, whereby the capability of the virus to bind to human cells increases during subsequent infections of humans (for more information see www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/avian_influenza/en/).

While communists are not catastrophists, or harbingers of doom, we are not complacent either. Facts have to be faced. If bird flu does manage to mutate to a human flu, the resulting worldwide pandemic could be an epic modern-day plague. Viruses like bird flu turn the body's own immune system against itself and a strong immune system can actually become an instrument of death in circumstances when it overreacts to a threat it has never been exposed to before and releases a torrent of chemicals to combat it - the outcome of which sees the literal filling up, and eating up, of the lungs, suffocating and eventually killing what had previously been a healthy individual.


And, of course, there is a hideous historical precedent for such a disaster - the great Spanish flu of 1918-20. Caused by an unusually severe and deadly strain of the subtype H1N1 of the species influenza A virus, this was the most deadly epidemic in recorded history, killing between 50 and 100 million people worldwide in just 18 months - far more than were killed in any war or died during the first four years of the Black Death (1347-51), and more than those who have been killed so far by HIV/Aids.

In the United States, 28% of all Americans became infected by Spanish flu - leading to the deaths of at least 675,000 and in a single year responsible for a 10-year drop in the life expectancy rate. Some 17 million died in India alone (about 5% of the population at the time), and entire villages were decimated in Alaska and southern Africa, while in the Fiji Islands it only took two weeks to kill off 14% of the population (it was 22% in Western Samoa).

Overall, the global mortality rate from this flu is estimated at some 2.5-5% of the entire human population - with 20% of the world population suffering from the disease to one extent or another. Most worryingly of all, evidence from a recent reconstruction of the virus suggests that it jumped directly from birds to humans, without travelling through swine - the previous theory being that the virus strain originated at Fort Riley, Kansas, by genetic drift and antigenic shift in viruses in poultry and swine which the fort bred for local consumption (www.influenzareport.com/ir/ai.htm - a free, downloadable and comprehensive medical textbook that examines epidemic and pandemic influenza).

In other words, today's bird flu has the potential to be just as deadly as the Spanish flu of 1918-20. Indeed, where humans have been exposed to infected birds and contracted bird flu, the death rate appears to be significantly higher than it was for Spanish flu. Yes, this is no trivial matter we are dealing with here.

Factory farms

Then, for communists, the spectre of Bernard Matthews and bird flu raises questions about agriculture and farming in general - that is, the politics of food production under capitalism. So when bird flu was passed to humans in the Far East, it was the poor who were the first victims - being forced as they are to live in close proximity to their livestock, they are more easily infected.

But in the west, hellish factory farms like Bernard Matthews inevitably means that any disease - bird flu, foot-and-mouth, 'mad cow' or whatever - spreads rapidly. Then the only answer is mass slaughter - a grotesque waste of animal life and human resources. Of course, they can always inject the birds with antibiotics - yet eventually the bacteria will become immune to them, and then the situation becomes even worse and more difficult to overcome. A vicious circle of capitalism's own making.

Self-evidently - or at least it is for communists - the fundamental problem is the intensive large-scale farming which is so essential to capitalism - as part of its relentless and ceaseless drive to cut costs and increase profit. There is an obvious drawback with this form of farming - it stacks up more and more contradictions. It means increasingly unnatural conditions for the animals and lower and lower quality food - shit food in fact, almost literally.

Not only that: the conditions for the workers in such an industry are more often than not quite atrocious - constant noise, stink, excrement, etc. It is hardly astonishing, given exposure to such a truly grim environment, that many of these workers tend to regard the livestock purely as things - as opposed to living, sentient, suffering creatures - which can be treated in a most barbaric and unnatural way. And by doing so these workers become dehumanised themselves.


What is the communist approach to agriculture and farming? Unfortunately, for one reason or another, there are very few worthwhile full-scale Marxist works on farming - an honourable exception being Karl Kautsky's magisterial 1899 study, The agrarian question. By reading this in combination with the many brilliant insights on this matter provided by Marx, it is possible to develop a programmatic framework for dealing with today's huge challenges.

In essence, Kautsky - the 'pope of Marxism' for so many of his generation - argued that, while communists favour large-scale industrial production, we think that as a general policy farms should be medium-sized, as opposed to the mega-sized so beloved of and intrinsic to capitalism.

The reason for this preference is that crop rotation, for instance, becomes all but impossible once the farm goes beyond a certain size - after that, farmers are obliged to use a whole armoury of artificial fertilisers instead of natural animal manure. In terms of livestock, this means something that should be an asset - ie, animal and bird shit - becomes a deadly liability when the quantities involved become unmanageable. How do you get rid of it, when it is no longer used to fertilise crops? Well, it is either turned into slurry or stored in tanks - which carries the attendant danger of leaks and spillage, and the potential to significantly pollute and poison the water supplies.

Kautsky also expands on Marx's observations about the problems caused by the gulf between town and country under capitalism. So the industrialisation of agriculture under capitalism tends to create forms of breeding that are more productive and profitable than ever before - but at the same time it creates the conditions for a massive increase in instances of pests and epidemics among animals. In this way, according to Kautsky, denaturised breeding has the tendency to counteract natural immunity and resistance to disease, and thus create new varieties of animals and plants whose resistance was low. Given recent phenomena like BSE, foot-and-mouth and now bird flu, this analysis - or warning - has an extremely contemporary feel to it.

Just like Marx, Kautsky believed that the separation of town and country life - a distinct feature of capitalism - creates a highly irrational system. That is, to the creation of a situation where farming is adapted to produce for a massive but thoroughly alien market in the towns and cities - a market where more and more of the population live, but which is more and more separated in every sense (including culturally) from where their food originates. It is this complete separation that gives rise to the need for the most denatured varieties and processes as a substitute for accessibility.

Taking his cue from Marx, Kautsky observes that under capitalism we have a strange situation where the waste products of the cities and towns play very little role in agriculture. To use phraseology from Marx, there is no metabolic exchange between what people eat and what they flush away. In turn, this just reinforces the need for more and more artificial products in agriculture, and for more and more artificial means to drive the mass production necessary for the mass urban markets. Consequently, more and more is produced on this separated basis - which in turn only acts to expand the role of the cities, and therefore this separation becomes increasingly more pronounced and grotesque - and, indeed, unnatural.


In short, capitalism has presided over the ruination of the countryside, with the aristos and capitalist farmers using it for their profits and 'sports' - such as the pastime of fox-hunting, now banned (even if it does, regrettably, carry on in various parts of the country). And, of course, the same people fought tooth and nail to keep out the broad mass of the population, under the guise of protecting 'rural values'.

Communists, on the other hand, envisage a social revolution and the progressive transformation of all existing conditions. As an integral part of that we want the greening of cities and the humanising of the countryside.

This would entail - amongst many things - ending overpopulation and underpopulation, a rational redistribution of people, much better housing, many more parks, free public transport, curbing car use in towns and cities and massively lowering air and river pollution. Instead of fenced-off green belts, we want forests around every city with free access. As for the City of London, it should be taken over by the people for the people. Currently, it has no more than a few thousand permanent residents - but it could easily house a million or more. For communists, there is no reason why these parasitical office blocks - headquarters for banks, commodity traders, insurance companies, advertising agencies and other such outfits - could not be turned into beautiful living spaces.

Though utterly irrelevant to actual human need, they presently occupy almost every inch of the golden square mile. The workers' revolution will consign them all to the dustbin of history by enshrining the principle of need and winning the battle for democracy.

As for the countryside, that too must be reorganised according to need and placed under democratic control. Today 0.28% of families own 64% of the land in Britain - an intolerable situation. All the big farms and landed estates should be nationalised and run for human need, not heavily subsidised profit. We want to end monoculture and therefore reverse the asphyxiating spread of rural deserts - a process that would go hand in hand with establishing, or restoring, the widest biodiversity in certain chosen areas.

By designating whole tracts of land as wilderness areas, forests, heaths, marshes, glades and woods could be made or remade and species driven to extinction - wolves, bears, bison, wild pigs, etc - reintroduced in a planned way. This would be for the benefit of nature and the  enjoyment of people.

And, unlike Bernard Matthews and all his associates and competitors, our prime concern is about the quality of food we put in our stomachs. Workers have a right to high-quality, varied, genuinely appetising food - not the present 'one size fits all' mass-produced crap that is so unhealthy and produced at such cost to society and nature itself.