Antibiotics and animal agriculture

This section of our family presentation was by my new son-in-law, who did was not a vegetarian when he met my daughter (I guess he no choice if he wanted to be part of our family!) He has embraced a vegetarian diet as he has learned about the environmental impact. His part focused on the dangers of antibiotic use in animal agriculture.


Antibiotics are a lynchpin of our current medical system, from allowing surgeries to occur with limited risk of infection, to widespread elimination of some of the nastiest bugs known to man. But the effectiveness of antibiotics is contingent on their judicial use. And the economics of meat production incentivize mass overuse of antibiotics on animals, putting humans at risk from the negative effects

First, a quick lesson in microbiology 101. Although antibiotics are incredibly effective, some bacteria through natural selection evolve resistance to certain drugs. Antibiotics kill most bacteria, sometimes up to 99.9%. But when that .1% that can survive the antibiotics are all that remain, they continue to reproduce, and in time, the bacterial populations that an antibiotic was meant to combat become immune to the drug, making it worthless.

How does that relate to meat production? Well of the 100-200 THOUSAND TONS of antibiotics that are produced every year, 80% of them are used by the agricultural industry. Why do factory farms use so many antibiotics? The reasons are twofold. First of all, it has long been proven that providing low levels of antibiotics in animal feed spur growth in livestock. Why does this happen? Scientists haven’t been able to figure it out, but it’s been known since it was first observed in the 1940s, and bigger animals mean more profit for the meat producers.

The second reason is, as touched on before, livestock are not kept in sanitary conditions, and animals are at risk of disease. To avoid contaminating their product, factory farms need to give aggressive antibiotic treatments to their animals to keep them healthy long enough to be slaughtered. Drugs are given to animals both to treat existing infections, and as a preventative measure to avoid future infections. These bacteria head into the wider world by riding on farm workers, manure based fertilizers, and yes, through contamination of meat. Given the relative cheapness of buying antibiotics, and the huge blow that widespread disease could have on a farm’s productivity, the economic argument for the farm is fairly straightforward. But the effect on human health can be devastating

As stated before, antibiotics are the linchpin of today’s medicine, and when they stop working, people die. According to a 2013 CDC report, at least 2 million Americans are infected by drug resistant bacteria every year, and 23,000 Americans die annually from these bugs, not including those people who die from other conditions that were complicated by an antibiotic-resistant infection. According to a 2014 study commissioned by the UK government, by 2050, antimicrobial-resistant infections will kill 10 million people across the world — more than the current toll from cancer.

Though antibiotic resistance, and the resultant “super-bugs”, have many different causes, the large amount of antibiotics used by the livestock industry are one of the biggest drivers of the problem, with the biggest users having no financial incentive to change their uses. Attempts to regulate or legislate responsible antibiotic use have been largely ineffective (though not for lack of trying). In the meantime, the private profits of these farms have real, harmful effects on public health. And the best way to reduce use of antibiotics and keep the super-bugs at bay, is to cut back demand for animal products.




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