The bird flu has become a threat to corn and soybean growers' profitability. Soybean exports have already fallen as a result of overseas poultry losses from bird flu, now believed to be about 200 million birds. In addition, overseas poultry consumption has fallen as some consumers have shunned chicken and other poultry meats because of false fears of contracting the disease from them.

“Export sales are down 22% from a year ago,” says Robert Wisner, a grain marketing economist at Iowa State University. “That shows caution on the part of foreign soybean buyers, and it also shows a reduction of broiler meat output in foreign markets. Consumers in Europe and parts of China are reportedly turning away from poultry products.”

Mike Woolverton, a professor of agricultural economics at Kansas State University, says, “The USDA had projected U.S. soybean exports of 1.2 billion bushels. Now they've lowered that to 900 million bushels. There has also been some softness in soybean prices. I think the bird flu is the primary reason.”

Corn producers would be threatened, too, if the disease spreads widely among hogs, which are susceptible to flu viruses. There are reports that some pigs have already contracted the disease in Asia. If U.S. pigs contracted the disease, it could spread in finishing units, damaging corn sales.

A recent United Nations report says the Americas could expect to see bird flu in six months to a year, possibly sooner. That could threaten America's poultry industry, although U.S. producers tend to operate biosecure facilities, which would minimize the chance of infection from migrating wild bird populations.

In a worst-case scenario, the bird flu virus could mutate into a form easily transmissible from human to human. Because of the lethal nature of this particular virus, health experts have warned that the planet could face a pandemic similar to the great flu outbreak of 1918-19, which killed as many as 100 million people worldwide. Congress recently approved a multibillion-dollar spending package to prepare for a potential human outbreak, and multi-national efforts are underway to create an effective human vaccine.

Economists and health experts have predicted that a human pandemic could have a potentially devastating impact on the world's economy, as nations shut borders to curtail spread of the flu, halting world trade. The impact would be magnified as people stayed home and kept their children from school to avoid infection.

“Restaurants should expect to see their business evaporate… Poultry and pork demand should tank,” says a food industry study prepared with data from the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota (www.cidrap.umn.edu).

“Farmers need to understand that their livelihood is at risk just because of what this would do to the world economy,” says Michael Osterholm, the center's director.

Bird Flu Facts

  • The disease is now in Asia, Europe and Africa.
  • About 100 people have died from the disease. Most contracted the virus from birds.
  • Federal government announced plans to test 75,000-100,000 birds for the disease.
  • The U.S. is stockpiling supplies of antiviral drugs to treat 14 million people.
  • The U.S. has opened 10 quarantine stations at border checkpoints.

SOURCES: WORLD HEALTH ORGANIZATION, UNIVERSITY OF MINNESOTA, THE NEW YORK TIMES.