New Internationalist

Factory farms make antibiotics weaker


ESBL E coli infections are increasing. Photo: Nathan Reading, under a CC License.

The animals raised in factory farms are bred to grow faster, and a result of this over-breeding is weakened immune systems and lower genetic diversity. In order to increase profits, thousands of animals are crammed into tiny cages in which they can barely move. As a result, vast quantities of antibiotics need to be pumped into the suffering creatures to keep them alive long enough to be turned into a product. Figures released by the US Food and Drug Administration show that 80 per cent of antibiotics used in the US are consumed by livestock.

It’s fairly well known that antibiotics are becoming less effective as bacteria become resistant to them. The cause of this is natural selection: the few unusual bacteria that happen to be resistant to antibiotics survive the large-scale use of the drugs, and pass on their genes more often than the ordinary bacteria. The more antibiotics are used, the faster this happens, which is why antibiotics should only be used sparingly.

The connection between factory farming and resistance to antibiotics is pretty obvious, but it doesn’t get the media attention it deserves. To give a concrete example of the dangers of factory farming’s reliance on antibiotics, let’s look at the case of ESBL E coli in Britain.

ESBL E coli is a strain of the bacteria that is resistant to antibiotics and is virtually untreatable. It only became a significant problem in human medicine as recently as 2003, and the first case of ESBL E coli in British farm animals was found on a cattle farm in Wales in 2004. ESBL E coli infections are increasing annually and now affect approximately 30,000 people each year in England and Wales. They cause about 2,500 cases of blood poisoning, about half of which are fatal.

The rise of ESBL E coli on farms has been linked by a recent study to the increasing farm use of modern antibiotics. A study by the VLA found that farms which had used third- or fourth-generation cephalosporin antibiotics in the previous year were four times more likely to have ESBL E coli than farms which had not. The use of these antibiotics on farms has itself increased fourfold since 2000. Scientists have confirmed that the bacteria have spread to more than one in three of all dairy farms in England and Wales.

If you want less statistics-based evidence, a recent study mapping the genome of an antibiotic resistant strain of staphylococcus found that it gained its resistant properties while hosted in the bodies of livestock, before jumping back to humans.

This is not just a fringe opinion; the US Food and Drug Administration’s position is that, ‘[I]t is well established that all uses of antimicrobial drugs, in both humans and animals, contribute to the development of antimicrobial resistance...’

The deaths caused by antibiotic resistance in the West are dismaying, but things are about to get a lot worse elsewhere. Only rare species of bacteria have become resistant in the West, whereas in Africa and Asia common forms of bacteria are becoming resistant to antibiotics, meaning that doctors are struggling to treat common infections. Many more people are going to suffer and die because of this, and, as usual, it’s the world’s poorest who will suffer the most.

I have a lot of faith in technological progress, and I believe at some point an alternative to antibiotics will be found. The two problems are that this technology will take time to develop, and it will initially be very expensive. The world’s poorest will not gain access to it in time.

There are a number of contributing factors to the spread of resistant strains of bacteria: overuse in human medicine, lack of regulation in the developing world, counterfeit drugs, a lack of medical knowledge, and factory farming. We need to be addressing all these causes.

Due to the money involved, and the powerful industry lobbying groups, no governments are going to properly regulate the meat and dairy industry any time soon. All that can be done for now is for individuals to boycott the meat industry and get involved in activism. In the meantime, the CEOs and shareholders will continue to get richer, and the poor in the developing world will die in their thousands. An all-too-familiar tale.

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