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Bad Bugs From an Unsustainable Meat-Producing Model

The overuse of antibiotics is just one way industrial agriculture relies upon unsustainable practices. It's now past time we act in name of science and public health.
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"This is the way the world ends; Not with a bang but a whimper." -- T. S. Eliot

Writers and filmmakers have long liked apocalyptic stories. In the last century the dominant cause of the end of humanity became a nuclear holocaust, but a giant asteroid hitting Earth has also been popular. But it might well be that the most likely cause of our demise will be a microscopic bug we cannot defeat, and that we vanish, or vastly diminish, not with a bang but a whimper.

And what if that bug arises from the "farms" where we mass-produce meat?

Our industrialized, factory-farming agricultural system is unsustainable from an ecological perspective. It pollutes, uses vast amounts of water and other animal protein in production, too often produces unsafe meat, contributes to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria in both animals and humans, contributes to climate change -- and all these problems will only worsen as the human population increases and continues or, or even increases, levels of meat consumption. On top of that, it is unduly cruel -- but that's not today's topic. Neither is the fact that much meat consumption is bad for you. The nation's most-known health advisers, Drs. Oz and Roizen, just wrote that "Red and processed meats (lunch meat, sausage, hot dogs or bacon) are a straight shot to heart disease, some cancers and memory loss."

But back to ecology. Regarding climate impacts, my friend Mark Hertsgaard noted in The New York Times:

Coal and cars are blamed, but agriculture is also a major contributor to global warming: by some estimates, it accounts for roughly a third of emissions globally. The industrialized, meat-heavy food system of the United States takes a heavy toll on the atmosphere; it takes an enormous amount of fossil fuel to run farm equipment and harvest the mountains of corn that fatten livestock. And most fertilizers contain nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas 298 times more potent than carbon dioxide over a century.

Now, the last time I wrote on the topic of meat, a few readers accused me of being a PETA member, a vegan, and even worse (and continued arguing with each other after I gave up trying to respond, offering personal insults and highly dubious "facts" per the too-common internet dynamic). So let me say here that I would not force my own practice (which is to eat only such creatures as I would comfortably kill myself, i.e., fish); have no illusion that everybody will stop eating meat, whatever the evidence, that I admire those who at least try to be more responsible and sustainable in meat production, even though their impact on the whole system is so small as to be largely symbolic. But it's good symbolism, and I hope they thrive and grow.

For now and the foreseeable future, however, the vast majority of modern meat production relies upon mass production, enabled by inhumane practices and the use of drugs, including antibiotics, to spur growth and putatively prevent infections. However, it's now long been suspected, and increasingly confirmed, that this endangers human health. Sustained use of low doses of antimicrobials is a textbook means of breeding drug-resistant pathogens. And as recently noted, again in The New York Times, agricultural lobbies don't want anybody telling them this is a bad thing.

But responsible health researchers, doctors, researchers and advocates have been warning about this misuse of one of our most important human medications for decades. I drafted a policy statement on this topic adopted a decade ago by the AMA. Now there is legislation to curtail such use, but it is embroiled in a prolonged political battle. Years ago I, and two senior living legends in American public health, wrote about this for a medical journal. One of my co-authors, Dr. Lester Breslow, died this year at 97 after a long and distinguished career. We have just re-published our editorial "Curtailing antibiotic use in agriculture" here.

As we concluded then, "It is time for action: this use contributes to bacterial resistance in humans." Alas, that is still true -- more true than ever. The overuse of antibiotics is just one way industrial agriculture relies upon unsustainable practices. It's now past time we act in name of science and public health. And if some animals are treated better as a side effect, all the better. Otherwise, they may wind up getting their revenge in an ironic manner nobody desires.

For more information on the growing campaign surrounding overuse of antibiotics in agriculture, see