Extensive use of antibiotics in agriculture creating public health crisis, researcher says

This image shows estimated antibiotic use in the United States. Data are shown as approximate numbers of kilograms of antibiotics used per year. Graphic by The New England Journal of Medicine. Credit: The New England Journal of Medicine

Citing an overabundance in the use of antibiotics by the agriculture and aquaculture industries that poses a threat to public health, economics professor Aidan Hollis has proposed a solution in the form of user fees on the non-human use of antibiotics.

In a newly released paper published in the New England Journal of Medicine, Hollis and co-author Ziana Ahmed state that in the United States 80 per cent of the in the country are consumed in agriculture and aquaculture for the purpose of increasing food production.

This flood of antibiotics released into the environment – sprayed on fruit trees and fed to the likes of livestock, poultry and salmon, among other uses – has led bacteria to evolve, Hollis writes. Mounting evidence cited in the journal shows are emerging in the wake of this veritable flood of antibiotics – resulting in an increase in bacteria that is immune to available treatments.

If the problem is left unchecked, this will create a health crisis on a global scale, Hollis says.

Hollis suggest that the predicament could be greatly alleviated by imposing a user fee on the non-human uses of antibiotics, similar 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 effectively resist antibiotics will thrive, Hollis adds, reproducing rapidly and spreading in various ways.

"It's not just the food we eat," he 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 , 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.

"These methods are obviously profitable to the farmers, but that doesn't mean it's generating a huge benefit. In fact, the profitability is usually quite marginal.

"The real value of antibiotics is saving people from dying. Everything else is trivial."

While banning the use of antibiotics in food production is challenging, establishing a user fee makes good sense, according to Hollis.

Such a practice would deter the low-value use of antibiotics, with higher costs encouraging farmers to improve their animal management methods and to adopt better substitutes for the drugs, such as vaccinations.

Hollis also suggests that an international treaty could ideally be imposed. "Resistant bacteria do not respect national borders," he says. He adds that such a treaty might have a fair chance of attaining international compliance, as governments tend to be motivated by revenue collection.

Hollis notes that in the U.S., a move has been made to control the non-human use of antibiotics, with the FDA recently seeking voluntary limits on the use of antibiotics for animal growth promotion on farms.

He asks: "Is the Canadian government going to take any action to control the use of antibiotics for food production purposes? Health Canada is trying to monitor the , but has virtually no control over use."

Related Stories

3Qs: The effect of antibiotic resistant bacteria

Oct 02, 2013

Last month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a report titled Antibiotic resistance threats in the United States, 2013, that served as a first-ever snapshot of the effect antibiotic ...

Getting better without antibiotics

May 30, 2013

Given the option, many women with symptoms of urinary tract infections are choosing to avoid antibiotics and give their bodies a chance to heal naturally, finds research in BioMed Central's open access journal BMC Family Pr ...

Antibiotics – friend and foe?

Nov 18, 2013

European Antibiotic Awareness Day is marked on the 18th November every year. This year in Norway, a seminar for health care providers about antibiotic use and resistance will be held, as well as several local events around ...

Recommended for you

With kids in school, parents can work out

5 hours ago

(HealthDay)—Back-to-school time provides an opportunity for parents to develop an exercise plan that fits into the family schedules, an expert suggests.

Obama offers new accommodations on birth control

9 hours ago

The Obama administration will offer a new accommodation to religious nonprofits that object to covering birth control for their employees. The measure allows those groups to notify the government, rather than their insurance ...

Use a rule of thumb to control how much you drink

10 hours ago

Sticking to a general rule of pouring just a half glass of wine limits the likelihood of overconsumption, even for men with a higher body mass index. That's the finding of a new Iowa State and Cornell University ...

User comments

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

dogbert
3.7 / 5 (3) Dec 25, 2013
This has been an ignored concern for many years. Now the proposal is to tax the antibiotics?

Why not just deny the use of antibiotics for any use other than the treatment of bacterial infections or other medical use?

I have often wondered why I have to have a prescription for an antibiotic but a farmer can obtain and dispense any amount of it with no control at all.
knutsonp
5 / 5 (3) Dec 26, 2013
On our farm, antibiotics are reserved for serious bacterial infections -- we wouldn't want to drink dairy laced with antibiotics, would you?

Taxation and regulation are blunt instruments that penalize those who are doing it right. Education benefits all.
krundoloss
1 / 5 (1) Dec 26, 2013
This type of thing needs to be kept in check. If we go too far with our use of antibiotics, it could surely become the instrument of our destruction. Regulation or taxation would be in order, and it would be best to make sure the taxes exceed whatever gain in profitability that could be had with the use of antibiotics. If we abuse on of the most important medical tools we have, it could be disastrous!
Dug
1 / 5 (3) Dec 26, 2013
Most scientifically based studies have shown repeatedly that the majority of anti-bacterial resistance is generated in - hospitals, where people with weakened immune systems can't effectively fight bacteria even with antibiotics - allowing resistance to develop. Antibiotics used in most food production activities are older, long approved antibiotic families, and some have been in use four or five decades. Explain why we're just now getting antibiotic resistance - unless you're entire purpose is to attract grant money. Antibiotics aren't cheap - especially in low margin chickens and pigs and if used at all, it's in the early stages of production where the farmer can afford them & where their residues are lost before market size. Essentially all antibiotics are flushed from the human body in our wastes. Consequently if anti-biotic resistance was a significant problem, sewage plant personnel, or those "evil" food producers would be first affected. Not the case. Sorry dogbert, knudnoloss.
Dug
1 / 5 (1) Dec 26, 2013
"80 per cent of the antibiotics in the country are consumed in agriculture and aquaculture for the purpose of increasing food production." Or, the other way of looking at is the antibotics are used to meet food production demands by un-managed human overpopulation.
"The real value of antibiotics is saving people from dying. Everything else is trivial." - Really, so we preserve the antibiotics just for the medical industry billing purposes - and let more people starve to death. This Hollis needs to spend a little home work time in food production - he's really quite a dangerous individual to let out unsupervised. Most scientist agree that we are far beyond the ability to produce food for the next generation. So, go head limit food production and solve the overpopulation problem faster.
TheGhostofOtto1923
3 / 5 (2) Dec 26, 2013
if anti-biotic resistance was a significant problem, sewage plant personnel
-are indeed in danger, as are we all...

"(Phys.org) —Tests at two wastewater treatment plants in northern China revealed antibiotic-resistant bacteria were not only escaping purification but also breeding and spreading their dangerous cargo.

"Joint research by scientists from Rice, Nankai and Tianjin universities found "superbugs" carrying New Delhi Metallo-beta-lactamase (NDM-1), a multidrug-resistant gene first identified in India in 2010, in wastewater disinfected by chlorination. They found significant levels of NDM-1 in the effluent released to the environment and even higher levels in dewatered sludge applied to soils."
Returners
1 / 5 (2) Dec 27, 2013
Ghost:

Imagine how many other strains of bacteria would be in the waste if there weren't antibiotics in use? There'd likely be tens, maybe hundreds of times more contamination.

Having family who still raises their own cattle, I can tell you the only way to guarantee they don't die is antibiotics.

If you've ever seen one shit itself to death, or drown in it's own mucus, you'd know. Then you have lost income and paying for disposal (or digging a grave for the thing yourself).

What was the saying? "An ounce of prevention beats a pound of cure," something like that anyway.
TheGhostofOtto1923
3 / 5 (2) Dec 27, 2013
Imagine how many other strains of bacteria would be in the waste if there weren't antibiotics in use? There'd likely be tens, maybe hundreds of times more contamination
Im not claiming they aren't beneficial, I'm saying that their benefit is probably temporary and that they could be creating even worse problems down the road.

And I'm certainly not offering a solution.

Ever hear of the potato famine? The Irish relied on one strain of potato, a plant from Peru. All it took was one disease, also imported from Peru, to destroy the crop nationwide. One third of the population starved.
patriciajohnson787002
not rated yet Dec 27, 2013
Well you said right thing here. I personally think access of every thing is bad and it applies in medicines and antibiotics also.
Gynecologist mountain view, ca http://doctorazad.com
Returners
1 / 5 (1) Dec 27, 2013
Imagine how many other strains of bacteria would be in the waste if there weren't antibiotics in use? There'd likely be tens, maybe hundreds of times more contamination
Im not claiming they aren't beneficial, I'm saying that their benefit is probably temporary and that they could be creating even worse problems down the road.

And I'm certainly not offering a solution.

Ever hear of the potato famine? The Irish relied on one strain of potato, a plant from Peru. All it took was one disease, also imported from Peru, to destroy the crop nationwide. One third of the population starved.


Right now, targeted antibiotics are used. Even if the bacteria somehow adapts to that, there are still other options, such as broad spectrum antibiotics.

They give antibiotics to suspect animals. Now maybe some people give them to everything, I don't know, but from what I've seen people don't just give a shot to every animal in the herd every time. That would cost too much.
Returners
1 / 5 (1) Dec 27, 2013
Also, I'd like to point out that livestock doesn't move around as much as people. If there were a resistant strain infecting a farmer's herd, he would notice that they were sick, and try to treat them, then he'd notice there'd be no response to treatment, then he calls a vet. Some farmers prefer to specialize in breeding, others in feeding. You don't normally see the majority of animals being moved more than a handful of times in their lives. They are in a pen so they normally can't get out and spread anything either.

Now compare that to a hospital, where people are constantly coming and going, and have their own free will and stupidity, which the law allows them to have, AND they are "protected" by the HIPPA law, so they can enter and leave the hospital with any number of infections, and in most cases the law forbids the hospital or staff from telling anyone about it. That's how hospital aquired infections get going and keep spreading: everyone constantly coming and going...
Returners
1 / 5 (1) Dec 27, 2013
Here's another problem, in that what makes economic sense at one scale (micro) does not make economic sense at another (macro).

To a farmer, it makes more sense to slightly over-treat, depending on the illness and medicine cost, than to under-treat. If you spend $100 more than you should on treating a herd, you are still better off than losing potentially over $1000 worth when just one animal dies.

I can assure you that a farmer isn't intentionally over-using the antibiotics, because they don't want to waste their time and money any more than anyone else. However, that doesn't change the fact that he'd rather lose $100 spent on medicine, perhaps even slightly too much, rather than lose a thousand or more per head from dead animals.
dogbert
5 / 5 (2) Dec 27, 2013
Returners,

No one is seeking to stop the medicinal use of antibiotics on farm animals. That is not now nor ever was the problem. The problem is adding antibiotics to animal food to promote growth. This use of antibiotics is what is causing the development of resistant bacteria.
katesisco
not rated yet Dec 28, 2013
All good insight. Probably why the factory hog and cow farms utilize the arsenic laden ground water in the lower coastal Piedmont. "Natural" poison can't be regulated or argued with.
But I recall info of late regarding growing crops in India where the small farmers were targeted with expensive fertilizers for the delux genetic high yield crops. Experiments showed that by regressing to farming with proper spacing for sun and water needs, the plots produced higher yields than the hyped genetic altered seeds. Isn't this what organic is all about? Agreeing to practice what nature allows?
roldor
not rated yet Dec 29, 2013
This is known for over 40 Years now !!
But the profit is more important for some,
than the public health!
SURFIN85
not rated yet Dec 30, 2013
There is an alternative to antibiotics. They're called bacteriophage, and they've been used therapeutically for decades. They are cultured from their natural reservoirs in situ and cultured in vitro. They are safe, effective, and natural.

Antibiotics, however, are pumped out by the chemical industries, by gigantic corporations, who enjoy enormous taxpayer subsidies and tax breaks, and wield enormous influence on lawmakers through lobby groups.

Why do you think the pied piper on this issue is an economist? Because money doesn't listen to scientists! And the general public? Bacon! BAAAAACON!