December 19, 2007

Looming Breakdowns?

Michael Pollan had an excellent piece in Sunday’s New York Times Magazine, discussing just what the term “sustainable” really means in the context of agriculture and food production.

To call a practice or system unsustainable is not just to lodge an objection based on aesthetics, say, or fairness or some ideal of environmental rectitude. What it means is that the practice or process can’t go on indefinitely because it is destroying the very conditions on which it depends. It means that, as the Marxists used to say, there are internal contradictions that sooner or later will lead to a breakdown.

He cites two examples of looming breakdowns to illustrate a larger point about the unsustainable practices in agriculture today, including one about the extreme reliance on antibiotics on huge factory farms, where pigs and chickens and cattle are raised in such tight, and terribly filthy, quarters that infections, once unleashed, can race through inmate population like horses at the beginning of a Triple Crown race.

Public-health experts have been warning us for years that this situation is a public-health disaster waiting to happen. Sooner or later, the profligate use of these antibiotics — in many cases the very same ones we depend on when we’re sick — would lead to the evolution of bacteria that could shake them off like a spring shower. It appears that “sooner or later” may be now. Recent studies in Europe and Canada found that confinement pig operations have become reservoirs of MRSA. A European study found that 60 percent of pig farms that routinely used antibiotics had MRSA-positive pigs (compared with 5 percent of farms that did not feed pigs antibiotics). This month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published a study showing that a strain of “MRSA from an animal reservoir has recently entered the human population and is now responsible for [more than] 20 percent of all MRSA in the Netherlands.”

And, by the way, it’s not just the animals infected with these resistant bacteria. According to a new Johns Hopkins study, it’s the people who work with them.

Poultry workers in the United States are 32 times more likely to carry E. coli bacteria resistant to the commonly used antibiotic, gentamicin, than others outside the poultry industry, according to a recent study conducted by researchers at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.


Currently 16 different antimicrobial drugs are approved for use in U.S. poultry production, with gentamicin reported to be the most widely used.

This is a huge part of why we try our best to buy our chicken, pork, and beef from local farms. The chicken and pork, in particular, not only tastes much better, but I know that I’m supporting farms that are doing things the “right” way – not damaging the environment, treating their animals well, and not promoting potential public health nightmares like rampant antibiotic resistance.

We’re fortunate to have access to these local farms and their products and, when necessary, to purchase meat sourced from somewhat more sustainably raised animals at places like Whole Foods. I know that’s not the case for a lot of people and I would never say that those with limited means should make sacrifices to purchase more sustainably produced products.

However, when scientists like Dr. Terry Etherton at Penn State – part of Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture Secretary Dennis Wolff’s infamous Food Labeling Advisory Committee -- claims that people like me, who are concerned about the use of antibiotics and synthetic growth hormones in the source animals for our food supply, are just snake oil salesmen who are “anti-ag, anti-biotech, and anti-science … who use campaigns of misinformation and junk science to scare consumers,” I’d like to take information like this Hopkins study and smack him over the head with it.

There are unintended effects, Dr. Etherton, of the way the majority of animals for food productions are now raised in this country. And while you may see unlimited use of antibiotics and growth hormones as an important part of the solution, there are mounting data that say using them in such an irresponsible manner on massive factory farms may be creating more problems than they are solving.

At the moment, their use may make a T-bone or a pork tenderloin more affordable for Joe and Jane American, but in the not-so-distant future, it may mean increasing rates of infections with antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria or maybe increased rates of cancer. So if we’re going to debate the facts – which is what Dr. Terry Etherton says is the purpose of his blog -- let’s talk about all of them, not just a carefully defined subset.

As one funny and wise blogger once wrote: Just. Friggin’. Sayin’.

* Image from University of California

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