Researcher: Extensive Use of Antibiotics in Agriculture Creating Public Health Crisis
Thursday, December 26, 2013
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 antibiotics in the country are consumed in agriculture and aquaculture for the purpose of increasing food production.
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.”
“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 resistant bacteria, antibiotics won’t provide any relief.”
“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.
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.
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 use of antibiotics, but has virtually no control over use.”