Could a user fee curb excessive antibiotics use?

Industrial feedlots are huge sources of greenhouse gases. PHOTO COURTESY DAVIS CREEK FARMS.

Large-scale use of antibiotics for food production needs to be curbed, scientists say.

‘The real value of antibiotics is saving people from dying. Everything else is trivial’

By Summit Voice

FRISCO — Massive use of antibiotics for food production is only marginally beneficial and poses a huge long-term risk to human health, researchers in Canada say. In a new paper, the scientists proposed a user fee that could help curb excessive application antibiotics in the agriculture and aquaculture industries.

The new paper published in the New England Journal of Medicine explains that in the United States 80 per cent of the antibiotics in the country are consumed in agriculture and aquaculture for the purpose of increasing food production.

The flood of antibiotics sprayed on fruit trees and fed to livestock, poultry and salmon has led bacteria to evolve. Mounting evidence cited in the journal shows how resistant pathogens are emerging — resulting in an increase in bacteria that is immune to available treatments.

If the problem is left unchecked it could create a global health crisis, according to University of Calgary economics professor Aidan Hollis.

“Modern medicine relies on antibiotics to kill off bacterial infections,” Hollis said. “This is incredibly important. Without effective antibiotics, any surgery – even minor ones – will become extremely risky. Cancer therapies, similarly, are dependent on the availability of effective antimicrobials. Ordinary infections will kill otherwise healthy people.”

Bacteria that can effectively resist antibiotics will thrive, Hollis explained, reproducing rapidly and spreading in various ways.

“It’s not just the food we eat,” he said. “Bacteria is spread in the environment; it might wind up on a doorknob. You walk away with the bacteria on you and you share it with the next person you come into contact with. If you become infected with resistant bacteria, antibiotics won’t provide any relief.”

While the vast majority of antibiotic use has gone towards increasing productivity in agriculture, Hollis asserts that most of these applications are of “low value.”

“It’s about increasing the efficiency of food so you can reduce the amount of grain you feed the cattle,” says Hollis. “It’s about giving antibiotics to baby chicks because it reduces the likelihood that they’re going to get sick when you cram them together in unsanitary conditions.

“These methods are obviously profitable to the farmers, but that doesn’t mean it’s generating a huge benefit. In fact, the profitability is usually quite marginal … The real value of antibiotics is saving people from dying. Everything else is trivial,” Hollis said.

While banning the use of antibiotics in food production is challenging, establishing a user fee makes good sense, according to Hollis.

Such a practice would deter the low-value use of antibiotics, with higher costs encouraging farmers to improve their animal management methods and to adopt better substitutes for the drugs, such as vaccinations.

Hollis also said an international treaty could could help create a level playing field.

“Resistant bacteria do not respect national borders,” he said. Such a treaty might have a fair chance of attaining international compliance, as governments tend to be motivated by revenue collection.

Hollis said the U.S. has started to control the non-human use of antibiotics, with the FDA recently seeking voluntary limits on the use of antibiotics for animal growth promotion on farms.

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