Overuse of antibiotics on industrial farms threatens human health and environment

HBy Tarah Heinzen Half a century ago, Aldo Leopold noted, “there are two spiritual dangers in not owning a farm. One is the danger of supposing that breakfast comes from the grocery, and the other that heat comes from the furnace.”

Industrial society has long distanced people from the sources and modes of production of the food we eat, preventing many of us from making informed and intelligent consumer choices. And since Leopold wrote these words, the industrialization of our food production system has reached a point even he may not have anticipated, further isolating consumers from the practices and technologies employed in modern agriculture.

Industrial agriculture presents dangers beyond the spiritual, however. With the expansion of factory farming, not only our food but also the way it is being produced, poses a threat to human health. Increasing numbers of people are aware of the crowded, stressful and unsanitary conditions in which most livestock in the U.S. are raised. Far fewer, though, are aware these conditions necessitate farmers to administer antibiotics to their herds on a routine basis, not only to keep the animals alive, but also to accelerate their growth. Often these antibiotics are premixed into the herds’ feed.

Feeding animals low doses of antibiotics on a daily basis creates antibiotic resistant bacteria by killing the weak bacteria and leaving the antibiotic resistant to become the prominent genetic lineage. As a result, resistant bacteria are finding their way into our waterways and food supplies, and medical professionals are seeing evermore antibiotic-resistant infections in humans.

The standard agribusiness response to the trend of rising antibiotic-resistant infections in humans is that the misuse of antibiotics in human medicine, not agriculture, is to blame. Of course human misuse plays a role. However, the Union of Concerned Scientists estimates that 70 percent of all antibiotics used in the United States are given to livestock. In addition, all major health authorities, including the World Health Organization, the American Medical Association and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, agree this abuse of all antibiotic medicines – human and animal – needs to be stopped in order to protect their effectiveness.

Why, then, aren’t the views of these organizations being translated into policy here in the United States? Why is our government protecting the interests of corporate meat producers at the expense of human and environmental health? There certainly aren’t any hidden benefits to this system of food production – quite the opposite. The tragedy of industrial animal agriculture goes far beyond antibiotic resistance. The lower production costs enabled by raising animals in confinement means corporate farms are out-competing family farms; the United States has fewer than half as many farms feeding almost twice as many people as when Leopold first lamented our disconnect from the rural communities we depend on. Corporations are rapidly replacing these communities, and environmentally destructive practices are replacing sustainable ones. The concentration of animals means concentrating their wastes – over one billion tons of waste is produced annually. Consequently, manure that could have fertilized crops in a smaller-scale system is now transformed into a pollutant responsible for damaging natural ecosystems, contaminating ground and surface water and contributing to the growing dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico.

The antibiotics being used to keep animals alive in factory farms are not only a threat to human health, they are a crutch supporting a corporate agricultural system, which, if social and environmental costs were taken into account, would fail. Being a responsible and informed consumer is harder now than ever before. With the government looking the other way, however, only consumers can force corporate meat producers to stop abusing medicines.

Tarah Heinzen is an organizer with the Keep Antibiotics Working

coalition. She welcomes comments at [email protected]