Of Piggies and Profit: Short term gain, long term pain—learning the hard way, but there is hope

Interesting article in the New York Times, sent by my friend Karen, about antibiotics and giant pork feedlots, and the threat of factory-farm bacteria resistance to antibiotics and its overflow effect on the safety of human populations. Reading the piece, I was struck by how much the argument against (mostly from scientists) and the counter-argument (mostly from pork producers) was so reminiscent of the climate change debate and also the debate between science and politicians/big business War On Drugs debate—and for awhile, the tobacco debate where seven CEOs of the biggest tobacco companies took an oath and said that nicotine was not addictive (or something like that).

From the article:

Now, after decades of debate, the Food and Drug Administration appears poised to issue its strongest guidelines on animal antibiotics yet, intended to reduce what it calls a clear risk to human health. They would end farm uses of the drugs simply to promote faster animal growth and call for tighter oversight by veterinarians.

The agency’s final version is expected within months, and comes at a time when animal confinement methods, safety monitoring and other aspects of so-called factory farming are also under sharp attack. The federal proposal has struck a nerve among major livestock producers, who argue that a direct link between farms and human illness has not been proved. The producers are vigorously opposing it even as many medical and health experts call it too timid.

The second to last line is the standard response of big interests, regardless of public health:

The federal proposal has struck a nerve among major livestock producers, who argue that a direct link between farms and human illness has not been proved.

And rephrased:

The federal proposal has struck a nerve among major tobacco producers, who argue that a direct link between nicotine and addiction/cancer has not been proved.

The scientific paper has struck a nerve among major law enforcement/the Canadian government, who argue that a direct link between needle exchange and a drop in HIV transmission rates has not been proved.

The IPCC report has struck a nerve among major oil producers, who argue that a direct link between human behaviour/carbon emissions and global warming has not been proved.

If there is truth to the New York Times article, the effects would be and already are devastating. Drug resistance is already a huge problem in hospitals themselves, with C. difficile running quite rampant in hospitals in Canada over the last few years, in particular in Quebec. And countless diseases are no longer affected by the same antibiotics that once shut them down.

More of the article:

“There is no conclusive scientific evidence that antibiotics used in food animals have a significant impact on the effectiveness of antibiotics in people,” the National Pork Producers Council said.

But leading medical experts say the threat is real and growing…

Resistance can evolve whenever drugs are used against bacteria or other microbes because substrains that are less susceptible to the treatment will survive and multiply.

Drug use in humans, including overuse and misapplication, clearly accounts for a large share of the surge in antibiotic resistant infections, a huge problem in hospitals in particular. Yet biologists and infectious disease specialists say there is also enormous circumstantial and genetic evidence that antibiotics in farming are adding to the threat.

The full article is here.

Policy driven by scientific evidence is difficult if the science goes against big enough interests—as is seen in the above four examples. And its not as though science doesn’t often have its own interests. For me, science can never be neutral. My dream is one day compassion, long term vision and science will all come together to shape policy, but we’ll see. In the mean time, may such wise attributes dictate my actions…

Sending lots of love and food for thought,

Pete x

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