True Costs of Industrial Agriculture
“Imagine a situation where all the antibiotics of last resort — which are propping up public health everywhere in the world — become useless.” This is a statement made by Patrick Holden, farmer and director of Sustainable Food Trust in an interview with Civil Eats.1
It sums up one of the most pressing issues facing industrial meat production and, consequently, the larger public.
Eighty percent of the antibiotics used in the U.S. are used by industrial agriculture for purposes of growth promotion and preventing diseases that would otherwise make their concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) unviable.
The cost of the loss of life that could result if antibiotics become ineffective is immeasurable, but this is just one cost of industrial agriculture. As Holden explained:2
“We’d also need to look at the cost of infectious diseases linked to industrial livestock production, the quality of the meats not being as health-promoting as grass-fed meat, residues of various kinds finding their way into the meat, and the cost to the environment …
… [B]oth of the production itself (particularly water pollution resulting from nitrate pollution) and of the cropping systems that feed the livestock (more nitrate pollution from the synthetic nitrogen fertilizers used to grow acres and acres of corn and soybeans).”
At Least 2 Million Americans Acquire Drug-Resistant Infections Every Year
According to U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) data, every year at least 2 million Americans acquire drug-resistant infections and 23,000 die as a result. Many others die from conditions that were complicated by antibiotic-resistant infections.3
Bacteria are, in essence, hard-wired to adapt to threats such as antibiotics and, at such point in time when they adapt to resist all of them, infections that were once easily treated will undoubtedly return with renewed force.
CAFOs, in particular, are hotbeds for breeding antibiotic-resistant bacteria because of the continuous feeding of low doses of antibiotics to the animals, which allows pathogens to survive, adapt, and eventually, thrive.
One of the worst examples is carbapenem-resistant Enterobacteriaceae (CRE), which are resistant to the class of antibiotics called carbapenems.4 CRE has been dubbed a “nightmare bacteria” by the CDC’s Director Dr. Tom Frieden because of their extreme resilience — it’s nearly impossible to kill them.
And it’s far from the only “nightmare.” According to the CDC, 22 percent of antibiotic-resistant illness in humans is linked to food,5 but a more accurate statement might be linked to food from CAFOs.
For instance, Klebsiella pneumonia are bacteria that can lead to pneumonia, bloodstream infections, wound and surgical site infections and meningitis. Klebsiella are often found in the human intestinal tract, where they are normally harmless.
But if your immune system is compromised and you get exposed to an especially virulent drug-resistant form, the consequences to you can be deadly. Further, research published in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases showed that turkey, chicken and pork sold in U.S. grocery stores may contain klebsiella pneumonia.6
Gaps in the Plan to Eliminate Antibiotics for Growth Promotion
In 2011, the Infectious Diseases Society of America (IDSA) issued a policy paper that recommended significant reductions in the use of antibiotics for growth promotion in agriculture.7
In 2015, the federal Presidential Advisory Council on Combating Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria was created. Part of its role is to evaluate the implementation of the National Strategy for Combating Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria.
One of the latter’s goals is to slow the emergence of resistant bacteria, which will require “judicious use” of the drugs.
According to the National Strategy, “Judicious use of antibiotics in healthcare and agricultural settings is essential to slow the emergence of resistance and extend the useful lifetime of effective antibiotics.”8
By 2020, the plan calls for the elimination of the use of medically important antibiotics for growth promotion in food-producing animals. It also calls for veterinary oversight for use of medically important antibiotics in the feed or water of food-producing animals. But is this going far — and fast — enough?
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has asked drug companies to remove indications for “feed efficiency” and “weight gain” from the labels of their antibiotic products. They also require veterinarians to oversee any addition of these drugs to animal feed and water.
However, no benchmarks have been set to reduce antibiotic use on CAFOs, and there is no system in place to collect data on how agricultural antibiotics are being used. Without any baseline data, monitoring any process toward reduction will be difficult, if not impossible.
Researchers Look Into Probiotics to Replace Antibiotics
As it becomes increasingly clear that the use of antibiotics for growth promotion must be eliminated, researchers are looking for other ways to promote growth, including the use of beneficial bacteria, or probiotics.
Alejandro Penaloza, Ph.D. of Oklahoma State University, for instance, has tested two strains of Lactobacillus acidophilus in poultry feed. The end result is birds that gain weight with less feed.9 Research published in the journal Poultry Science concluded, for instance that a probiotic product containing Bacillus subtilis:10
” … [M]ay stimulate growth at a later age and may facilitate broilers in reaching their target weight sooner. Therefore, probiotics are recommended as potential alternatives to antimicrobials in chicken diets … “
Separate research also found that probiotics in poultry feed could stimulate the birds’ immune system, presumably helping to cut back on illness also without the use of antibiotics.11
Trading antibiotics for probiotics is a massive step in the right direction, but ultimately what is needed is for the animals to have access to their native diets via foraging and grazing.
FDA to Revoke Approval of Carcinogenic Pig Drug
The antibiotic carbadox (brand name Mecadox) has been used for about 40 years to prevent disease in pigs as well as fatten the animals. It’s estimated that 40 percent of U.S. pork producers use the drug,12 but that may soon change.
The FDA is taking steps to rescind their approval of the drug after their preliminary risk assessment found it may leave a cancer-causing residue in the meat. Pork liver, which is used to make hot dogs, lunchmeat, liverwurst and certain sausages, may be particularly risky, according to the FDA.
Phibro Animal Health Corp., which manufactures the drug, was reportedly “incensed” by the FDA’s move to ban carbadox13 and plans to request a hearing to challenge the FDA and refute the allegations.
The FDA noted that Phibro “failed to provide sufficient scientific data to demonstrate the safety of this drug,” adding that:14
“Potential cancer risks are based on an assumed lifetime of consuming pork liver or other pork products containing carbadox residues, and short-term changes in diet are unlikely to affect a person’s lifetime risk.
However, removal of the product from the market will reduce the lifetime risk to consumers.”
What Does Grass-Fed Meat Have to Do With It?
There are many costs of industrial agriculture beyond the spread of antibiotic-resistant disease — like the buildup of nitrogen fertilizers in the soil and the use of GE grains (doused in glyphosate) as a primary source of feed.
When animals are fed an unnatural diet, such as grains instead of grass, a number of bad outcomes occur. The animals are more prone to illness, for one, and the resulting meat (or dairy products) is nutritionally inferior.
Dairy and meat from cows raised primarily on pasture have been repeatedly shown to be higher in many nutrients, including vitamin E, beta-carotene, and the healthy fats omega-3 and conjugated linoleic acid (CLA).
It also holds the key to avoiding the environmental destruction that is imminent if industrialized agriculture continues to grow. One important factor that some experts believe is KEY for reversing environmental devastation is to return much of our land to grasslands and build a network of herbivore economics.
There is perhaps no better way to improve the conditions for animals, solve the carbon problem, bring more revenue to farmers, and improve our health by purchasing nutritious foods from properly pastured animals (versus the CAFO model based on monocultures of corn and soy fed to the animals).
By mimicking the natural behavior of migratory herds of wild grazing animals — meaning allowing livestock to graze freely and moving the herd around in specific patterns — farmers can support nature’s efforts to regenerate and thrive. This kind of land management system promotes the reduction of atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) by sequestering it back into the soil where it can do a lot of good.
Once in the Earth, the CO2 can be safely stored for hundreds of years and add to the soil’s fertility. Returning to more sustainable organic farming methods is also necessary in order to support the regeneration of soils, which, ultimately, dictates how nutritious the food grown in it will be.
What Can You Do?
Rebuilding functional ecosystems from the ground up will restore them to their fullest potential, and this needs to be our overriding focus. Perhaps you can’t do anything about how large-scale commercial farms are being run at the moment, but you can make a difference for yourself, for your family and community that might have residual effects.
Buying organic, thereby avoiding any and all GM foods is, I believe, a crucial step. This includes buying grass-fed or pastured animal products, such as beef, chicken, milk, and eggs. Besides that, you can also:
- Grow your own organic vegetables. Organic gardening isn’t something extra you do — in fact it’s quite the opposite. It’s what you don’tdo that makes the difference: no chemicals, pesticides, fungicides, and herbicides on your plate! When you take control of what you eat, you’ll naturally enjoy better health, ensure and protecting future generations.
- Composting is another way to make what you already have work for you in the future. Save those scraps, from egg shells to coffee filters, and use them to feed your vegetable garden.
When shopping for food, be informed regarding where that food was produced. A guide to help you can be found by clicking here. If you take advantage of the farm-fresh sustainability that’s becoming more prevalent as people take control of what they’re consuming, you’ll realize many benefits. You’ll know where the foods you and your family eat come from, ensure optimal nutrition, and protect the health of future generations.
As far as antibiotic-resistant disease is concerned, you can help yourself and your community by only purchasing antibiotic-free meats and other foods and using antibiotics only when absolutely necessary. This is an important step that I urge everyone to take, even though ultimately the problem of antibiotic resistance needs to be stemmed on a global level.