Your choices at the grocery store could help turn the tide.
In 1928, a Scottish scientist named Alexander Flemming discovered penicillin, the world’s first antibiotic medicine. It took 12 years for researchers to learn how to purify and concentrate the antibacterial compound, and it was first used to treat the public during World War II, where it saved countless lives and ushered in a new era in medicine.
In 1945, when Flemming received a Nobel Prize for his discovery, he ended his acceptance speech with a word of warning: he described how easy it was to create bacteria resistant to penicillin in his laboratory, simply by exposing them to concentrations of the drug that were too low to kill them all, but enough to educate them to resist the antibiotic. Such a scenario could easily unfold inside the human body, he warned: “negligent use of penicillin change[s] the nature of the microbe.”
The world should have paid closer attention.
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In the 89 years since their discovery, antibiotics have transformed modern medicine, sparing countless millions pain, suffering, and death. But their effectiveness is waning.
“The Post-Antibotic Era Is Here”, Wired announced in a recent article. For years, organizations like the CDC has warned that we’ll reach a tipping point in antibiotic’s effectiveness. That moment, they say, is here. “Folks are dying simply because there is no antibiotic available to treat their infection, infections that not too long ago were easily treatable,” Jean Patel, who leads the CDC’s Antibiotic Strategy & Coordination Unit, told the magazine.
Check out this inspiring nurse who’s also a professional herbalist—and grows her own medicines!
Bacterial resistance to antibiotics is inevitable—it’s nature’s way. If a few bacteria happen to have genes that protect them from antibiotics, they will survive and replicate and spread. But the rise and spread of antibiotic resistance isn’t happening at a natural rate: It’s being accelerated by the inappropriate use of antibiotics in animals.
In 2016, the United Nations General Assembly flagged the inappropriate use of antibiotics in animals as a leading cause of the rise of antibiotic resistant bacteria.
“Agriculture must shoulder its share of responsibility, both by using antimicrobials more responsibly and by cutting down on the need to use them, through good farm hygiene,” said Dr José Graziano da Silva, Director-General of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO), in a press release.
In the United States, antibiotics are prohibited in organic farming, but are regularly given to cows, pigs, and chickens in conventional large-scale livestock operations to combat diseases arising from unsanitary conditions. While the U.S. does not collect data about how antibiotics are used on farms, the volume of antibiotics used can be tracked through sales data. According to the Pew Charitable Trusts, in 2015 (the most recent year for which data is available) 2.41 million pounds of antibiotics considered “important for human use” were sold for use in animal agriculture. That’s accounts for about 70% of all antibiotic use in the United States.
Related: Why Buying Organic Is A Really Big Deal If You Care About Animal Welfare
When large numbers of animals are dosed indiscriminately with antibiotics, it increases the odds that bacteria resist the drugs and survive, replicating in the animals’ guts.
From there, here’s exactly how antibiotic use in farm animals leads to the spread of antibiotic resistant bacteria in the human population, according to the Centers for Disease Control: the antibiotic-resistant bacteria can infect people through the meat of the infected animal (especially if it’s improperly handled and cooked). They can also infect people via plant food crops: when animal feces are used to make fertilizer or contaminate water systems, those superbugs can also get onto vegetable crops, infecting anyone who eats them. There are also studies that show that the microbes can be carried by dust through the air.
In a paper published last month in Science, an international team of researchers identified three urgently needed measures that must take place to reduce the use of antibiotics in food animals. Two measures must be implemented at regulatory and farm levels: limiting the use of antibiotics in animals and imposing a fee on veterinary antibiotics.
The third simply asks consumers to reduce the amount of meat they consume each day.
If all of the omnivores on the planet were to limit themselves to 40 grams of meat daily—that’s about as much meat as you see in a skinny fast food hamburger patty— that alone would reduce antibiotic consumption by food animals by 66%, the study says.
On average, Americans eat a whopping 265 grams of meat every day (well above the daily recommendation for adults of 5 to 6 ounces, or 142 to 170 grams), so this won’t be the easiest lifestyle switch for everyone. (If you’re used to thinking of meat as your mainstay for iron and protein, check out these 14 vegetarian foods that have more iron than meat, and 6 easy vegetarian sources of protein.)
You can also reduce the use of antibiotics in livestock by sticking to organic-certified meat and dairy: organic livestock can not be given antibiotics for growth promotion, and if an animal is sick and legitimately needs to be treated with antibiotics for its health, that animal—and the food it produces—cannot then be sold as “organic.”
“It’s not about turning people vegetarian,” one of the study authors told Time, “but you don’t need to eat meat three times a day 365 days a year. It’s not sustainable or good for you.”
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