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Factory farming threatens antibiotics

We don’t have to imagine a world without antibiotics, only look at history to know what life was like before infections like typhoid, tuberculosis, pneumonia, tetanus, diphtheria, syphilis, gonorrhoea or meningitis could be treated.

But through the reckless use of antibiotics in factory farming, and over-prescribing by doctors under pressure from the drug cartels, we might be facing just such a world.

Antibiotics are failing to keep pace with the speed at which bacteria are adapting to resist them and World Health Organisation (WHO) director general Dr Margaret Chan has warned of “a post-antibiotic era, in which many common infections will no longer have a cure and once again, kill unabated”.

According to a report from the Alliance to Save Antibiotics (formed by Compassion in World Farming, the Soil Association and Sustain), the over-use of antibiotics in farm animals has already resulted in the following:

Industrial farms wreck animals’ natural immune system through overcrowding, early weaning and high levels of stress. And so animals are routinely given antibiotics at low dosages to combat this. The average Dutch pig was on antibiotics for nearly 20% of its life, according to earlier research.

In the EU it is now illegal to add antibiotics to animal feed to induce faster growth, though it was happening not so long ago, and continues in the US.

The result of all this is that animals are developing strains of bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics, and these can be transmitted:

A Soil Association report recounts the story of one of these new strains. Pigs have a form of MRSA, known as NT-MSRA. By 2004 it began spreading to people. The first recorded case was a Dutch baby girl and her parents, who were pig farmers. Now 50% of Dutch pig farmers are carrying the new strain.

By 2007 it had spread to the wider population and caused more than 20% of cases of MRSA in the Netherlands. It was being passed not from pig to person but from person to person.

Now the same strain has been found in chickens, dairy cows and veal calves across Europe, as well as on the bodies of those working on those farms or in slaughterhouses.

So far, it has relatively low virulence, but in the US a new family of highly virulent antibiotic-resistant bacteria, known as CRE, emerged in 2001 and is now widespread. It causes infections that defy even the strongest antibiotics.

Bacteria develop resistance in two ways – by mutation or by gene transfer, where mobile pieces of DNA move between different bacteria creating a new drug-resistant species.

Industrial agriculture is huge business in the US. For example there are 30,000 hog and pig farms with an annual revenue of about $19 billion. The corporations involved are entirely opposed to any controls on their use of antibiotics.

Our alienated, unnatural, capitalist world itself creates conditions that speed up antibiotic resistance. What can you say about a system that bases itself on statements like Nietzsche’s “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”, but forgets the same thing applies to bacteria? Not a lot.

Penny Cole
Environment editor
13 December 2012

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