The threat and developing impact of antibiotic resistant superbugs in the global food system has now been elevated to crisis level by the United Nations. For only the forth time in its history has the UN ever raised a health issue to crisis level where superbugs are now on par with the AIDS and Ebola crises.
At the core of this crisis sits animal agriculture—there’s never been a better time to stop eating animal products. While the over-prescription and misuse of antibiotics in human medicine is part of the problem, the misuse of antibiotics in animal agriculture to meet the ever increasing demand for animal products across the globe is the prime culprit driving this problem forward.
On September 21st, the UN General Assembly met to to address how antibiotics have become far less effective when treating human illnesses caused by bacteria. It was confirmed late last year that antibiotic resistant superbugs were spreading globally when scientists discovered a gene that helps bacteria resist our very last remaining antibiotic group, which works when all of the other antibiotic groups fail. This gene was found in both farmed animals and people in China and Denmark. Then, shortly after, the US Defense Department researchers found the same strain in a Pennsylvania woman.
A New Era of Superbugs
The UN has formally acknowledged that the post-antibiotic-era is an immeasurable global threat. In the 68 year history of the United Nations, the General Assembly has called similar meetings to discuss the HIV crisis and the rise of non-communicable diseases, such as heart disease and Ebola. Since the beginning of the epidemic, more than 70 million people have been infected with the HIV virus and approximately 35 million people have died of HIV as there is no known cure yet.
With the arrival of the wonder drug penicillin, however, countless millions of lives have been saved. Before the mid-1940s, a tooth abscess might have killed, scarlet fever was often lethal, and gangrene claimed limbs as a matter of course. If 3 people caught pneumonia, it was likely that only 2 or even 1 would survive. Penicillin shot to prominence against the backdrop of World War II and in the Allied countries, penicillin production increased exponentially. The compound helped save thousands of solders’ lives. Life magazine in 1944 declared “Thanks to penicillin…he will come home!” when the drug became available to the general public.
However, the shimmering wonder of penicillin is now approaching its demise thanks to the overuse in animal agriculture where animals are dosed with broad spectrum antibiotics to control inevitable disease due the disgusting and intensive confinement they are forced into. The agriculture industry also gets an added bonus where the antibiotics also act as a growth promoter—pushing animals beyond their natural physical limitations—and it has been an integral part of the expansion of factory farming.
Now, a post-antibiotic-era is fast approaching as bacteria have mutated and evolved becoming resistant to our final classes of antibiotics. It is estimated that with the continued rise in resistant superbugs will mean we’re faced with an increasing number of untreatable infections, that will lead to 10 million people dying every year by 2050. We would then see a reduction of 2% to 3.5% in Gross Domestic Product (GDP) which would cost the world up to $100 trillion USD.
Public health advocacy groups have pushed on the federal government to crack down on how farmers use antibiotics, but the government has been slow to act in a meaningful way. Food companies are not especially transparent about what drugs are being used on different species and how they are being used, and the government mandates little be made public.
They Already Knew
It has been known for decades that the overuse and misuse of antibiotics—in the medical and agricultural industries—promotes the emergence of antibiotic resistant pathogens. And yet, here we are, with industries and government bodies practically doing nothing until it’s too late. The UN General Assembly’s 193 member states signed a declaration this week committing to the fight against resistance, but the details haven’t even been decided upon.
A recent Australian study found that when approximately 40% of hospital in-patients receive antibiotics, nearly half of those are actually unnecessary or sub-optimal. Contributing are unnecessary prescriptions for viral infections like the common cold and most cases of bronchitis are 90-95% of the time viral as well, passing after a few weeks.
While no one is asking anyone to refuse appropriate medical treatment if they are sick or injured, it is plausible that most individuals are able to avoid consuming meat and dairy products. Supporting the meat and dairy industries means supporting the use of antibiotics in agriculture and promoting its impact across global health.
Antibiotic Use in Plant Agriculture
It isn’t just farmed animals who are treated with antibiotics. Today, the most commonly used antibiotics on plants are oxytetracycline and streptomycin. However, in the US, antibiotics applied to plants account for less than 0.5% of total antibiotic use. Meanwhile the meat industry now accounts for over four-fifths of all antibiotics used at 2011. A stark difference if there ever was one.
Plant pathogens resistance to oxytetracycline is rare, but streptomycin-resistant strains have impeded the control of several important diseases. Though, there remains debate over the role of antibiotic use on plants and its role in the global antibiotic resistant superbugs that we are facing right now because the most common vehicles of streptomycin-resistance genes in human and plant pathogens are genetically distinct.
Our modern day food system has an enormous amount of undeniable problems, not only in how farmed animals are used and brutalised but also in how we as a species manage to feed our problematic growing population. Will vertical farms be enough to control the deforestation and land use issues? Will we be able to reverse the unfolding climate change disaster that is inextricable linked to animal agriculture? Can we stop overfishing and pollution of the largest oxygen producing ecosystem on planet Earth? Or will bacteria simply overwhelm us—making even the most basic injuries and contagions life-threatening—and wipe out billions of people when our antibiotics no longer solves the complications of the pre-WWII era?
If one is seeking to limit their exposure to antibiotics, it makes sense to avoid the industries where antibiotics use is the most prominent, the most damaging—the meat and dairy industries. After all, adequate human nutrition requires none of it.
Other Sources: Quartz.