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Another Reason To Worry About A World Where Everyone Eats Meat: Drug-Resistant Superbugs

Antibiotic use in meat production is only increasing in countries like India, China, and Russia.

Another Reason To Worry About A World Where Everyone Eats Meat: Drug-Resistant Superbugs

There are lots of reasons to worry about the world’s hunger for meat. Climate change, water pollution, unhealthy diets–these are all possible or even probable impacts of the world adopting more Western-style diets. But that’s not everything. We can also add the issue of bacterial resistance.

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In the U.S., up to 80% of all antibiotics are given to livestock animals to prevent disease on industrial farms. When you cram animals together in tight spaces, drugs are a near necessity: without them, we’d have more dead animals and a lot less food to eat. The problem is that the overuse of antibiotics leads to strains of bacteria that are untreatable with existing drugs, which in turn has implications for human health. Although the links aren’t certain, it’s thought resistant-bacteria jump to humans through food products, from agricultural workers coming into direct contact, and through our exposure to the environment.


People have long complained about the use of antibiotics on American farms, but that’s only the tip of the iceberg. The level of use in countries like China and India is likely greater still, though we have a dim idea of the actual extent; only developed countries keep reliable tallies.

To fill in for the rest, a new study uses statistical techniques to make estimates for overall antibiotic use in the world. And needless to say, the numbers are scary. In 2010, drug consumption reached 63,151 tons, the PNAS study says. By 2030, it projects that to rise by 67%, to more than 107,000 tons.


“Antimicrobial have become a structural part of our intensive farming practices,” says Thomas Van Boeckel, the lead author of the study. “This is a direct consequence of keeping animals in high densities, the low immunity of breeds that are selected to grow fast, and insufficient cleaning of premises, because this represents a labor cost.”

The projected increases track with expected increases in meat production, particularly in Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa. The study forecasts that these BRICS countries will double their use of antibiotics for livestock farming.


To reduce the possible consequences, Van Boeckel recommends countries outlaw drugs for certain nonmedical purposes, like growth promotion. That’s something the EU has already done. The U.S., in its light-touch way, merely asks drug producers to stop labeling their products for growth promotion–which isn’t the same.

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On top of that, the paper also argues for a “publicly funded international surveillance network of antimicrobial consumption” so we at least have real numbers to back up our fears. At the moment, the biggest users of antibiotics in animals are the countries we know least about, Van Boeckel says.

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About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.

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