Tag Archives: cattle

The Trouble with Antibiotics

The World Health Organization published an admonishment in 2012, called ‘The evolving threat of antimicrobial resistance – Options for action.’ It’s been largely ignored by policy-makers in the United States, but it’s time we start paying attention, because our behavior is contributing in a big way to this threat, and it will affect people all over the world, including ourselves.

A recent study by the CDC (who is also being ignored by the policy-makers, by the way) found that there is a link between use of antibiotics in livestock and antimicrobial resistance in human infections. The study also put a number on them for the first time – more than 23,000 deaths and well over 2 million antibiotic-resistant infections in one year. You can read an article on the report here.

You may have heard people talking, perhaps on the news, about how we need to scale back on our use of antibiotics for our own ailments – true, they are over-prescribed, but that tactic completely misses 70% of the antibiotics used the U.S., which go to livestock. The way animals are raised in feedlots is bad bad bad for a number of reasons, some of which have nothing to do with animal rights. It’s bad for us, too.

Pile_of_manure_on_a_field

So how did E. coli, which grows in the guts of some animals, like cows, get on your spinach? I’ll give you a hint…

Animals raised in crowded conditions are far more likely to get sick, so they’re fed a constant low-level stream of antibiotics, some of which are also used to treat human infections. That constitutes the perfect condition for bacteria and other microbes to rapidly (in evolutionary terms) develop resistance to the antibiotics. The reason they can develop resistance so quickly is partly because they can pass on resistant genes within a generation via plasmid exchange (i.e. direct cell-to-cell contact). This is a quote from the article linked to above:

“The link between overuse of antibiotics in livestock and microbial resistance has been suspected since the 1960s, but Congress, at the behest of the pharmaceutical and livestock industries, has blocked efforts by the Food and Drug Administration to scale back their use.”

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I’d say that’s far too long a time to allow this dangerous behavior to continue, and we’re now reaching a moment in history that could have devastating effects for future generations, and even during our own lifetimes.  Here are a few of the recommendations that the WHO makes in their document:

4. USE OF ANTIMICROBIALS IN FOOD-PRODUCING ANIMALS
4.1 Require obligatory prescriptions for all antimicrobials used for disease control in food animals.
4.2 In the absence of a public health safety evaluation, terminate or rapidly phase out the use of antimicrobials for growth promotion if they are also used for treatment of humans.
4.3 Create national systems to monitor antimicrobial usage in food animals.
4.4 Introduce pre-licensing safety evaluation of antimicrobials with consideration of potential resistance to human drugs.
4.5 Monitor resistance to identify emerging health problems and take timely corrective actions to protect human health.
4.6 Develop guidelines for veterinarians to reduce overuse and misuse of antimicrobials in food animals.
5. NATIONAL GOVERNMENTS AND HEALTH SYSTEMS
5.1 Make the containment of antimicrobial resistance a national priority.

(The evolving threat of antimicrobial resistance – full text pdf of the WHO document)

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If we look at the big picture, we can easily see how devastating it will be if bacteria and other microbes that infect humans and animals develop resistance to multiple antibiotics (what we call ‘superbugs’). It would set medicine back significantly – the risk of infection would be far too high, making routine surgeries and other invasive procedures, down to the simple catheter, fraught with danger.

That is not the world I want to live in. One more reason to support local, organic, and rethink our entire food system. One more reason to be vegan. One more reason to be active in voicing opposition to a corrupt Congress.

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Why Meat is Not Sustainable

“Nothing will benefit human health and increase the chances for survival of life on Earth as much as the evolution to a vegetarian diet.” ~ Albert Einstein.

There are many reasons people decide to go pescatarian, vegetarian or vegan, often having something to do with health or cruelty to animals. Legitimate reasons, to be sure, but they’re not what pushed me over the fence. It was realizing how grossly unsustainable it is to raise livestock for human consumption, especially with the number of people currently living on earth and the current practices that are employed by the vast majority of cattle farmers.

Cattle are definitely the worst offenders. Producing 1 kg of beef (a/b 2.2 lbs) emits greenhouse gases that equal about 34.6 kg (76.3 lbs) worth of global warming potential. Think of every cow as an extra car on the road driving about 7,800 miles per year. There are approximately 1.4 billion cattle in the world, 25-30% of which are dairy cows.

That’s a hell of a contribution to global warming, and that doesn’t include the other forms of environmental damage that result, like deforestation for the purpose of creating pastures. That also doesn’t include the contributions from other livestock, like sheep, goats, and pigs. The more you reduce the amount of meat and dairy in your diet,  the more you will reduce your personal carbon footprint.

Grapes to the rescue?

We need to work out other ways to reduce the impact of livestock on the environment, and more widely implement those we have. Grape marc is a by-product of wine-making. It’s the parts of the grape left over after pressing out the juice. It’s high in both dietary fat and tannins, both of which reduce the amount of methane a cow produces. When a study was done in Australia, it was found that feeding marc to dairy cows reduced their methane output by 20%. There were other benefits, too, such as reducing the concentration of saturated fatty acids, and increasing linoleic acid which is known to fight cancer, heart disease and arthritis. All that needs to be done for this to work is to create a supply chain between vintners and cattle farmers. It would at least be a start.

It’s also possible to use the manure from the cows to produce electricity, as pointed out by erisa1602 in a comment on my composting post. It strikes me that, as a society, we really need to work on interdisciplinarianism, cross-pollination of ideas, and plain old working together to create better solutions.

Full disclosure

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I am not a vegetarian. I’m actually a pescatarian, though I don’t eat seafood as often as I’d like and I’ve reduced my dairy intake to almost nil these days, almost by accident. One of the things you can do to decrease your meat consumption is to replace some of it with seafood, which doesn’t have as devastating an effect on the environment, if you choose responsibly. The Blue Ocean Institute has a fantastic resource to help you make sustainable seafood choices, while warning you of fish that may contain levels of mercury or PCBs.

It comes down to simple choices, every day, that can make very real differences – instead of making meat lasagna, make eggplant lasagna. Have a bbq with veggie burgers and veggie hot dogs. They’re way better for you anyway, and if you get the right brands they taste really good. There are also serious health benefits to lessening or eliminating meat consumption. I highly recommend looking into the China Study.

It’s hard to change your habits and your lifestyle patterns, but it’s so vital to the future of us all that we each try our best to contribute as little as possible to global warming. For most of us, that does mean we have to make changes. We can no longer afford to think, or eat, selfishly. It’s not sustainable.

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