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There are a lot of food and agriculture issues that don’t get the attention they deserve. For example, a study in the journal One Health examines the link between urinary tract infections (UTIs)—which can quickly turn serious and result in more than 1 million emergency room visits a year—and animal agriculture in the United States.
The researchers found that around 8 percent of UTIs in sampled patients can be attributed to meat-borne bacteria; nationwide, that could be about 640,000 infections a year. E. coli bacteria present in the guts of farm animals can contaminate raw meat when animals are slaughtered and can also contaminate irrigation water. To be clear, we cannot say the study proves that UTIs were caused by E. coli from meat, but the connectivity is striking.
“Our study provides compelling evidence that dangerous E. coli strains are making their way from food animals to people through the food supply and making people sick,” said Lance Price, a Professor at George Washington University’s Milken Institute School of Public Health and Director of the Antibiotic Resistance Action Center.
This is more than just a foodborne illness problem—it’s a factory farming problem. Whether we’re talking about pollution or environmental justice, we see the complex ways industrial mega-farms are already jeopardizing our health. But this new research on UTIs underscores how much we still don’t know.
Typically, doctors can treat UTIs fairly easily by using antibiotics that target the specific strains of E. coli that cause the infection. But not when bacterial strains develop antibiotic resistance. Globally, in 2019 alone, 1.27 million deaths were directly attributable to antimicrobial-resistant bacteria.
When animals are confined to crowded, unsanitary conditions and cannot perform their natural behaviors, their stress levels increase and their immune systems weaken. These animals are given antibiotics prophylactically—i.e., to prevent them from becoming sick, rather than to treat an existing illness—so they’ll live long enough to be slaughtered and sold.
In a conversation with Food Tank a couple years ago, Lance Price put it simply: “We’re using antibiotics to prop up broken systems in animal agriculture,” he said.
Already, more than 80 percent of antibiotics sold in the U.S. go toward livestock and animal agriculture, and an overwhelming majority of those end up excreted from the animal un-metabolized and go right into waterways, according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization. In smaller doses, whether in an animal’s system or elsewhere, low doses of antibiotics can kill off weak pathogens and inadvertently select for the stronger ones.
But it does not have to be this way: The smallholder farmers who are already doing the right thing need our support. The farmers who give their animals space to do their natural behaviors need our support. The farmers who only use antibiotics to treat sick animals; the farmers who are raising healthy and low-stress animals; the farmers who understand that people and the planet come before profits—they need our support.
At the same time, we cannot place responsibility for the problem solely on individual farmers while ignoring the broader systemic factors. Look, I understand that companies and investors and financial institutions need to make money, but they don’t need to do so at the expense of the planet. Sustainability, regenerative practices, avoiding food waste, raising healthy livestock, and more are not just morally right—they’re also profitable.
Right now, to put it bluntly: We’re falling short. Despite efforts to curb it, antibiotic use is expected to grow 8 percent by 2030, according to research in Nature. And rather than finding scapegoats, we have to understand that this is truly a systemic problem that calls on those in power to meaningfully address.
I hate to talk this way, but if we continue to downplay the problem of antibiotic resistance, it should scare you. The COVID-19 pandemic is not over, but what if the next one is already starting, on a factory farm? Earlier this year, I had a serious illness and I’m so grateful for antibiotics. But I’m worried, too—what if they’re no longer effective for someone else in the future
Thankfully, many organizations and companies are stepping up. Last year, Food Tank reported on a high-level Joint Secretariat on Antimicrobial Resistance, which is working to improve collaboration around the globe. We profiled a hog farmer in Iowa who said he used to give his animals a shot of antibiotics—until he started working with Niman Ranch, a sustainable pork company, which has given him and hundreds of other farmers the resources they need to raise healthier animals.
Yes, the challenges are daunting. But we’re not facing them alone. Food Tankers around the globe can share best practices, strategies, and stories of hope and success to help us stay optimistic.
And as always, keep me in the loop at firstname.lastname@example.org—share more stories with me of farmers, chefs, food procurers, policymakers, and more in your communities who are fighting to reduce the use of antibiotics, supporting smallholder farmers who are doing the right thing, and protecting our health in the process.
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Photo courtesy of Egor Myznik, Unsplash