Extensive use of antibiotics in agriculture creating public health crisis

Jonathan Marker | Science Recorder | December 26, 2013

Extensive use of antibiotics in agriculture creating public health crisis

While the vast majority of antibiotic use has gone towards increasing productivity in agriculture, the researcher asserts that most of these applications are of “low value.”

According to a December 25 news release from the University of Calgary, researchers say that the extensive use of antibiotics in agriculture and aquaculture industries poses a significant threat to public health.  Aidan Hollis, an economics professor at the university, advocates the use of user fees on non-human use of antibiotics as a means to counter this public health problem.

In a new research paper published in the New England Journal of Medicine, Hollis and coauthor Ziana Ahmed report that in the United States 80 percent of the antibiotics in the country are consumed in agriculture and aquaculture for swelling food production.

This inundation of antibiotics released into the environment – sprayed on fruit trees and fed to livestock, poultry and salmon, among other uses – has directed bacteria to evolve, Hollis.  Growing evidence cited in the journal shows resistant pathogens are developing in the wake of this veritable flood of antibiotics – resulting in an increase in bacteria that is resistant to available treatments.

If the problem continues unchecked, Hollis says, this will produce a health crisis on a global scale.

Hollis suggested that the dilemma could be significantly improved by imposing a user fee on the non-human uses of antibiotics, comparable to the way in which logging companies pay stumpage fees and oil companies pay royalties.

“Modern medicine relies on antibiotics to kill off bacterial infections,” explains Hollis. “This is incredibly important.  Without effective antibiotics, any surgery – even minor ones – will become extremely risky.  Cancer therapies, similarly, are dependent on the availability of effective antimicrobials.  Ordinary infections will kill otherwise healthy people.”

Bacteria that can successfully resist antibiotics will thrive, Hollis says, reproducing rapidly and spreading in various ways.

“It’s not just the food we eat,” Hollis says.  “Bacteria is spread in the environment; it might wind up on a doorknob.  You walk away with the bacteria on you and you share it with the next person you come into contact with.  If you become infected with resistant bacteria, antibiotics won’t provide any relief.”

While the vast majority of antibiotic use has gone towards increasing productivity in agriculture, Hollis asserts that most of these applications are of “low value.”

“It’s about increasing the efficiency of food so you can reduce the amount of grain you feed the cattle,” says Hollis.  “It’s about giving antibiotics to baby chicks because it reduces the likelihood that they’re going to get sick when you cram them together in unsanitary conditions.”

Despite the fact that banning the use of antibiotics in food production is challenging, instituting a user fee makes good sense, according to Hollis.  This would discourage the low-value use of antibiotics, with higher costs, forcing farmers to expand their animal management methods and to embrace better substitutes for the drugs, such as vaccinations.


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