Without antibiotics, the world would be a much more hazardous place. Used to treat countless common illnesses and infections, these drugs revolutionised medicine in the last century, but now they're in peril. And factory farming's partly to blame.
In our age of information, we’re probably all familiar with such horror-inducing terms as “superbug”, “MRSA” and “antibiotic resistance”, which fly around news and social-media sites with alarming regularity. But how many of us truly understand the links between a plate of cheap pork chops and these grave threats to humanity?
In this feature, we join the dots between factory farming and the formidable rise of antimicrobial resistance (AMR), a collective term used to describe the bacteria that are becoming immune to the very drugs once used to combat them.
Using and abusing drugs
Intensive animal agriculture, which is characterised by an emphasis on productivity above all else, has developed a worrying drug habit – that is, the routine prophylactic use of antibiotics on healthy livestock. In other words, factory-farmed animals are being continuously dosed up with these drugs via their feed and water in order to prevent illnesses and infections – even when there are no signs of disease in sight.
This treacherous trend isn’t down to the poor health of animals, but to poor conditions inside factory farms, which provide the perfect breeding ground for bacteria. In these dismal operations, large numbers of animals are kept inside cramped and dirty cages and pens, which can leave them stressed, frustrated and prone to ailments.
But instead of trying to tackle the root cause by improving the wellbeing of animals through more humane treatment and better living conditions, factory farmers and vets are opting for a short-sighted quick-fix – the overuse of drugs that the World Health Organisation (WHO) deems to be “critically important” in human medicine. And it’s having a devastating effect.
The drugs don’t work
The truth is that mass medicating such a large proportion of the world’s livestock over so many decades – as well as the overuse of antibiotics in human medicine – has pushed us to the brink of a human-health crisis. Exposed again and again to massive amounts of these drugs, bacteria are evolving resistance to live alongside them.
We now face a frightening future where these critical drugs are no longer effective, and where routine human infections have the power to kill once again. Even PM David Cameron has said that entering a post-antibiotic world would be like returning to “the dark ages of medicine". And he’s right. The problem is, we’re already halfway there.
According to the WHO, “it is happening right now in every region of the world and has the potential to affect anyone, of any age, in any country.” In short, it's about time it became headline news.
Resistance in action
In the press this month, there’s been a lot of talk about a class of antibiotics known as fluoroquinolones, which are key to fighting food-borne infections in humans, including salmonella, E. coli and campylobacter, Britain’s most common food-poisoning bug.
However, despite the known links between the overuse of these drugs in livestock and resistant strains of food poisoning, UK poultry producers have actually upped their usage, and by no small measure – the Bureau of Investigative Journalism has released figures that show a staggering 59% increase in their uptake between 2013 and 2014. It’s scary stuff, potentially leaving us unable to treat life-threatening cases of food poisoning.
In both the US and Australia, fluoroquinolones are illegal, and several EU countries, including Sweden, Denmark, Finland and the Netherlands, have already banned the preventative mass medication of farm animals. But a number of other EU countries are lagging behind, including the UK.
Since the publication of the Bureau’s report, however, a host of notable medical experts and scientists have highlighted the danger of inaction in this area, and MEPs on the EU Environment, Public Health and Food Safety (ENVI) committee have voted overwhelmingly in favour of a draft EU regulation to ban the prophylactic use of antibiotics on healthy farm animals.
Although that’s not the end of the story – several more key votes on the issue have yet to take place – it’s a major battle won. As Emma Rose, campaigner for The Alliance to Save our Antibiotics, says: “By voting in favour of a ban on the routine mass medication of healthy animals, EU Environment committee MEPs have voted to protect human and animal health.”
Better welfare standards
Right now, the world must address the need for better animal-welfare standards across the board. Our lives, surely, depend on it.
We need to concentrate on higher-welfare systems for our food production, which focus on disease prevention through good hygiene, husbandry and housing, and administer drugs to animals only when they show signs of illness. EU organic regulations, for example, already forbid the preventative use of antibiotics on farm animals.
Put simply, the status quo must change, and fast. After all, wasting our precious supply of life-saving antibiotics in order to prop up a cruel and crazy system like factory farming is not only illogical, but dicing with death.