13.Antibiotics, Livestock, and Food

I interrupt a planned group of posts about urban food-growing to report on recent news regarding the problems of antibiotics in the factory-farming of animals.

Two stories broke recently in just two days.  On Sept. 23, Danish researchers announced their discovery of a strain of a dangerous multiply-antibiotic-resistant bacterium — MRSA — that was transmitted directly from infected poultry to people who ate it.  Since MRSA infection cannot be fought with any known antibiotic, this can be life-threatening to the unfortunate people so infected.  And while such transmissions are still rare, they point to the growing danger of overusing antibiotics in raising livestock for food.

It may not be well-known to everyone, but the economics of Confined Animal Feeding Operations — CAFOs, i.e., factory farms — produce intense pressure to get the animals big enough to slaughter as fast as possible, and feeding them antibiotics continually makes them gain weight faster.  At the same time, the animals are so crowded together that one disease organism could spread through them all and wipe out a whole buildings’ worth of animals in a few days, so feeding continual antibiotics is the only way to keep them alive long enough to slaughter.  The result is that most of the meat and eggs derived from most livestock operations come from billions of animals fed continual antibiotics:  a perfect recipe for breeding antibiotic-resistant disease-causing bacteria.

The U.S. has made feeble attempts to do something about this looming crisis, issuing an “action plan” last year that forbids the use of antibiotics for spurring growth.  But since it still permits “preventative use” of these drugs, the result is no change whatsoever from feeding continual antibiotics to factory-farmed livestock.

So it is hopeful that the second bit of breaking news was a UN summit meeting on Sept. 22 at which 190 member nations all signed a declaration to do something about antibiotic resistance.  This would be great — except that the declaration is nonbonding and sets no firm targets.  So although previous similar declarations (for example to fight HIV) have had good results, it is hard to see how, in the face of rising demand for meat, this UN declaration could work.

For in fact, the only real route to preserving antibiotics’ effectiveness for treating sick people is to stop their continual use on livestock.  But this would mean the end of factory farming of food animals.  And one immediate result of ending the CAFOs would be the end of abundant cheap meat.  Other effects, however, would directly affect the fight against world hunger.  For in addition to ending the air pollution and water pollution and greenhouse gas releases and fish kills that all arise from factory farms’ manure pits, ending factory farming of livestock would free up vast acreage now growing animal feed for use in growing food directly for humans.

This is really three good things, since if people eat little meat they are likelier to be healthier than if they eat a lot of it — as long as their substitute for heavy meat-eating is an increased consumption of beans and whole grains and vegetables and nuts and fruits, and not refined grains and sugar and junk food.  But for people to actually go along with eating little meat, two things have to happen.  First, they have to learn how to enjoy and embrace plant-centric cuisines.  And second, they need to have access to the aforementioned good-quality beans and whole grains and vegetables and nuts and fruits.  Currently , low wages and urban food deserts stymie this last necessity for many, and economic inequity is therefore something these posts will need to address.  But urban food-production could surely be part of solving these problems.   So I will return to that topic in my next.

Louise “Gentle Bee” Quigley

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