As a child I had strep throat on a regular basis. The doctor would diagnose me by putting a giant Q-tip into the back of my throat to check for bacteria. I was given penicillin, amoxicillin, and tetracycline – at least those are the names of the antibiotics that I remember. I have always had an aversion to taking pills. I hated taking vitamins and even refused pain killers after surgery on my knee when I was 10. I stopped taking antibiotics when I felt “adult” enough to question whether or not I really needed them. The last time I took antibiotics I had been sick for many weeks and the doctor looked at me like I was crazy when I asked what would happen if I didn’t take the dose she recommended, “You are healthy enough that you won’t die from this, but do you really want to stay sick for at least another month?” I didn’t want to be sick anymore, so I took them and I got better right away.
Those antibiotics worked quickly and I was happy to be healthy again, but imagine if you were given medicine, specifically antibiotics, and they didn’t work. What if the doctor had to try multiple doses of different and increasingly potent drugs before they could get your infection under control? What if they couldn’t get it under control at all? I swear my mother’s doctor will give her antibiotics “just in case” even if she only has a cold, or maybe she asks for them? Medical overuse is the main reason for antibiotic resistance in humans, but the other major reason is agriculture.
Antibiotics and agriculture? A strange combination, right? The use of antibiotics to treat illness in humans seems totally unrelated to agriculture, until you realize that about 70 percent of all antibiotics used in the United States are routinely fed to farm animals, and not animals that are sick either.
What are antibiotics and antibiotic resistance?
Antibiotics are natural, semi-synthetic or synthetic agents that are classified by whether they kill bacteria or inhibit its growth. One critical point is that antibiotics only attack bacteria, such as those that cause strep; they don’t work on viruses, such as those that cause a cold or flu. While antibiotics are attacking bacteria that make you ill they also harm bacteria in your digestive tract that is necessary to keep you healthy, potentially causing other health problems. Penicillin was the first antibiotic to effectively treat previously deadly diseases such as syphilis, but many people are allergic to penicillin. There are now as many as 150 different types of antibiotics, which can attack bacteria that cause everything from earaches to life threatening cardiac infections.
Antibiotic resistance means that a specific bacterium has become resistant to a particular antibiotic that was previously effective in attacking it and results from an evolutionary “survival of the fittest.” When an antibiotic does not kill all of the harmful bacteria, those that survive can mutate and reproduce, creating new, more resistant colonies. The result is a multi-resistant strain, sometimes called a superbug. In addition to the over-prescribing and inappropriate use of antibiotics in humans, the enormous insertion of antibiotics into our food supply at factory farms contributes to the development of resistant bacteria and their transfer to humans through food, workers and soil and water contamination.
Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) is an example of an infection that in the past was effectively treated with antibiotics but has become resistant to many of these drugs, making it difficult to treat. MRSA is often spread in hospitals (my grandfather contracted MRSA in a nursing home), and is also found outside of hospitals, not only in humans, but also in animals on factory farms. It has been estimated that at least 18,000 Americans die every year from drug-resistant infections. In addition, the National Academy of Sciences calculates that increased health care costs associated with antibiotic-resistant bacteria exceed $4 billion each year in the United States alone, a figure that reflects the price of pharmaceuticals and longer hospital stays, but does not account for lost workdays, lost productivity or human suffering.
Antibiotics in agriculture
In agriculture, antibiotics are found on most factory farms, where they are routinely fed to healthy animals including poultry, swine, cattle and sheep (and farmed fish) for non-therapeutic reasons to ward off potential infections due to overcrowding and unsanitary conditions and also to promote rapid growth. Many of the millions of pounds of antibiotics fed to healthy animals each year are the same drugs used to fight infections in humans – Tetracycline, penicillin, erythromycin and others.
The antibiotics given to the animals on factory farms are excreted in their manure, which then contaminates the surrounding soil and water, often by being sprayed onto food crops as fertilizer. Studies have found trace amounts of antibiotics in plants grown with this manure. Not only are the crops contaminated, but the meat and dairy from these non-organic animals is also contaminated. There is a possibility that this also applies to organic produce as there is no regulation of the manure used on organic crops. A study done at Johns Hopkins University showed that workers at the factory farms are also exposed to airborne bacteria, which can provide a pathway to transfer antibiotic-resistant bacteria from animals to humans. The soil is contaminated, the water is contaminated, our food is contaminated and we are being steadily dosed with antibiotics without our permission, contributing to the antibiotic resistant bacteria that threaten our health.
The medical community has become so alarmed by this fact that the American Medical Association has joined hundreds of other health and environmental groups in lobbying Congress to outlaw the practice of routinely feeding antibiotics to healthy animals on factory farms ‘ a practice that is also banned in Europe and elsewhere.
In 2003, the World Health Organization recommended countries phase out the use of antibiotic growth promoters in animal feed. “Basing its recommendation on a study conducted following a 1998 voluntary ban of such growth promoters in Denmark, WHO said the phase-out would help preserve the effectiveness of antibiotics for therapeutic use. According to the report, the cost of producing pigs in Denmark rose about 1 percent and antibiotic use to treat sick animals increased after the ban, but the overall amount of antibiotics used on Danish farms fell by about 50 percent. More important, the amount of resistant bacteria in pork and chicken declined substantially. For instance, before the ban, 60 to 80 percent of chickens had bacteria resistant to three widely used antibiotics. After the ban, that number had dropped to 5 to 35 percent of the birds.”
What does this mean to agriculture?
As Tom Philpott points out in Grist (July 2009), industrial animal farming may be impossible without routine antibiotic use. “Stuffing animals together over their own sh*t essentially ruins their immune systems; antibiotics keep them alive long enough to reach slaughter weight. The industry’s very business model may be the root of the problem – fixing it might mean slaughtering the meat industry itself, and returning to smaller scale, pastured-based meat-production models. That would mean significantly less meat in our diets. No doubt, though, H.R. 1549 represents a step forward.”
What is the future of agriculture without antibiotics? Organic certification takes does not allow the use of antimicrobials. An animal can be treated for an illness with antibiotics, but then that animal cannot be sold as organic. This is a very important distinction between organic and industrial animal production.
How can we avoid these unnecessary antibiotics?
- Use the Eat Well Guide to find stores and restaurants that offer sustainable meat and dairy products. Stay away from factory farmed meat and dairy.
- Watch The Meatrix and share it with friends and family. It is a great introduction to the problems with industrial agriculture, including the overuse of antibiotics.
- Support small farms by purchasing meat from local producers. Ask questions about their practices to find out if and how they use antibiotics. Many small farmers employ sustainable practices, even if they aren’t certified organic. If you are buying meat from a store, read the labels! If you need more help deciphering confusing labels, check out our Glossary of Meat Production Methods.
- As with so many issues ‘ our collective buying power is an important tool. Buying antibiotic-free meat sends a strong message to the industrial farming giants – if enough consumers change their buying habits, they will have to change their practices.
- Avoid processed foods. Cooking at home with meat, dairy and produce bought from known sustainable sources (Farmers, CSAs, Farmers Markets, Coops, Independent Grocery Stores) is an important way to control what goes into our bodies.
- Eat less meat and dairy. It’s good for you and good for the planet too. Check out the Meatless Monday campaign for more information.
I stopped eating meat when I was about 16 (not because I was smart enough to know about antibiotic resistance!), which has limited my intake of these agricultural antibiotics, but I've unknowingly ingested them through water, vegetables, and dairy products and the run off from our industrial food system. Antibiotic resistance will continue to be a concern for our families and communities, not just in the United States, but globally. The cost of health care increases with the resistant bacterial infections, and we know our health care system is already stressed! Please be responsible with your use of antibiotics and be cautious when purchasing food. Local, sustainable, whole foods are the key to a healthy body and to maintaining the Earth for future generations!
Please continue reading about this very important subject. Here are some interesting links to get you started.