We’ve reached what some are calling the end of antibiotics – and this is directly related to industrial animal agriculture.
Humans are close to reaching the end of antibiotics, though some experts say that we’ve already passed the point of no return when it comes to antibiotic efficacy. We’re approaching this tipping point because of industrial animal agriculture and systemic overuse of antibiotics on factory farms. And we should all be freaked out by this.
Antibiotic Use on Farms Continues to Increase, Despite Industry Promises
News broke last week that the amount of antibiotics used for farm animals increased again this year. But while NPR reports the rate of increase has slowed from previous years, David Wallinga of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) is quoted in the article as saying, “this report further underscores how urgently we need more and stronger government action” to reduce antibiotic use.
Cattle have shown increasing levels of resistance to ciprofloxacin and turkeys showed an increase in Salmonella that’s resistant to several different antibiotics. Chicken, eaten more than any other meat in the US, is loaded with E. coli bacteria that can infect you just by touching it.
Scientific American reported earlier this month that multidrug-resistant bacteria (resistant to even to carbapenems, a strong antibiotic used in hospitals) was found on a Midwestern hog farm.
It’s shocking that our government is doing so little to curb farm antibiotic use, especially considering that the The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the World Health Organization (WHO), the UK government all warn that antibiotic resistance on farms can lead to antibiotic resistance in human populations.
“When these bacteria infect humans, they are extremely difficult to treat, and are often deadly,” writes Melina Wenner in SciAm.
A Brief History of Antibiotics
Antibiotics are an effective means of preventing the spread of bacterial infections, and they have been, in many ways, the savior of civilization. Discovered in 1928, antibiotics are one of the most important innovations of the 20th century, according to the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC). But even the CDC understands we’re walking a fine line towards an antibiotic resistant future.
If you’re of a certain age, you’ve probably noticed that every time you take antibiotics, they are different. When I was a kid, I took penicillin a few times a year for my recurring strep throat and other infections. However, as early as 2009, CNN wrote that penicillin is mostly obsolete as it is ineffective against many bacteria. This is simple genetic selection on the part of the bacteria. They’ve developed “resistance” to penicillin, so it’s no longer an effective treatment.
To further complicate the situation, new research into antibiotics is slow, as it’s just not financially viable for pharmaceutical firms to create a new drug. Often, they are just playing catch-up with current bacterias, which could render a new antibiotic obsolete before it’s even ready for market.
In a 2011 bulletin, the World Health Organization (WHO) explained: “Antibiotics [have] a poor return on investment because they are taken for a short period of time and cure their target disease. In contrast, drugs that treat chronic illness, such as high blood pressure, are taken daily for the rest of a patient’s life.” Pharmaceutical companies know which makes them more money.
Last year, The New York Times laid this out plainly: “two million people are infected with bacteria that can’t be wiped out with antibiotics, and as a result, 23,000 people die. Direct healthcare costs from these illnesses are estimated to be as high as $20 billion annually.” A more recent article puts the numbers significantly higher: 90,000 US deaths annually, $55 billion in costs and 8 million additional days that people spend in the hospital.
How Animal Agriculture is Increasing Antibiotic Resistance
In an article earlier this year, Tom Philpott of Mother Jones explained it perhaps most succinctly: “The slow unraveling of antibiotics as a tool to fight infections is intimately related to modern meat production, which for decades has relied on antibiotics to make animals put on weight faster and fight off disease in tight, unsanitary conditions.”
Although the natural lifespan and genetic changes of bacteria naturally lead to some antibiotic resistance, animal agriculture has sped up the process over the past few decades. Farm animals receive routine, sub-therapeutic doses of antibiotics that breed resistance and are hastening the end of antibiotics.
Farm animals receive approximately 80% of the antibiotics sold in the US.
Why use antibiotics on the farm? Farmers and ranchers found that giving animals sub-therapeutic – as a preventative rather than when they get sick – doses of antibiotics helps animals put on weight and keep them functionally healthy in crowded, disgusting conditions.
Antibiotic use on farms is not new news; in fact, we wrote about this issue back in December of 2015. In 2014 the FDA released new guidelines for using antibiotics for animals, but these guidelines are voluntary, and in 2014 after the guidelines were released (and at the time of our report), sales of antibiotics to farms increased 3%; sales are up 23% since 2009.
The Bleak Future of Antibiotics for Humans
This is some scary stuff, and it shows more than ever that we need to exercise the power of voting with our dollars.
As consumers (omnivores and vegans alike), we need to demand an immediate decrease in antibiotics on farms to protect the future of humanity. Stop buying animal foods that are not labeled clearly as raised without antibiotics, and talk with legislators about this important topic.
An easy way to make your voice heard is by using petitions. Here are two that are still active and are supported widely by legitimate institutions like the Center for Science in the Public Interest, Earthjustice, Food Animal Concerns Trust, Public Citizen, U.S. Public Interest Research Group, and California Public Interest Research Group:
Further Reading on the End of Antibiotics
These are referenced as links in the paragraphs above, but here are some really detailed reports about this topic that are useful and frightening.
Mother Jones: UTIs Are Horrible and Soon There Will Be No Drugs That Can Help You
Eat Drink Better: Despite Industry Promises, Animal Antibiotic Use Still Increasing
Consumer’s Union: The Overuse of Antibiotics in Food Animals Threatens Public Health
Wired: That New Superbug Was Found in a UTI and That’s Key
NPR’s The Salt: Despite Pledges To Cut Back, Farms Are Still Using Antibiotics