Last year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention produced a landmark report on the growing scourge of antibiotic resistance. It warned that antibiotic-resistant microbes are already responsible for 2 million infections and 23,000 deaths a year, and that the problem is getting worse all the time due to drug over-use in humans and agriculture.
While the CDC says 50% of human prescriptions are unnecessary, it’s the agricultural uses–which account for four-fifths of the total volume–that seem most egregious. Farmers use antibiotics for building muscle in livestock (“growth promotion”), for improving digestion, and even for spraying on fruit trees.
How can we cut down on the frivolous use of antibiotics in agriculture? A recent opinion piece in the New England Journal of Medicine proposes one idea: a fee on non-human uses of antibiotics, ideally one that is “calibrated to the extent of antibiotic resistance caused by each use.” In other words, where resistance is most advanced, the price for the relevant drug would be highest.
The authors of the article, Aidan Hollis and Ziana Ahmed, describe the idea as an “economically rational solution,” and preferable to an outright ban, which would be indiscriminate and hard to enforce. The fee could be imposed high up the supply chain, they say, and would discourage “low-value” uses of antibiotics, and help pay for new antibiotic research.
Something needs to be done. Late last year, the Food and Drug Administration issued a meek “guidance” to the meat industry, politely asking producers to stop administering “growth promoter” drugs. Nobody seems to think it will have much effect. Maybe a tax would do more to preserve antibiotics for what they’re really needed for?