Sounds all very innocent, doesn’t it? AMR on farms.
Yet within our lifetime, it could be the cause of 5 BILLION deaths – the biggest single calamity in our history.
Three little letters – AMR. Antimicrobial resistance, the increasing immunity of bacteria, viruses, parasites and fungi to any medicine we throw at them.
Already a global health issue, this week its superbug effect on humans became the focus of world leaders at the United Nations.
The largely British initiative was driven by Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt and England’s Chief Medical Officer, Professor Dame Sally Davies, who targeted AMR as “the greatest future threat to our civilisation.”
The real villain
And top of the list of medicines most susceptible to AMR, is our previously unequalled group of miracle wonder drugs – antibiotics.
Because they’re so amazing, antibiotics have become almost the cure-all for any kind of illness or infection.
Major surgery? Yup, they’re essential. And little Jimmy’s cough? Start him on these and come back in a week.
With this kind of “infallible” hype among doctors and patients, they’ve become over-prescribed and over-used in almost a third of all cases – dramatically accelerating the opportunities for bacteria to develop immunity.
More chance to practice, more chance to succeed. Easy-peasy when you’re a versatile organism and high survivor, able to reproduce every twenty minutes
Armageddon in the making
So yes, AMR is a global nightmare. But a midget alongside the Armageddon of AMR on farms.
240,000 TONNES of antibiotics are shovelled into farm livestock every year. Industry will assert it’s to keep animals healthy. Reality is that antibiotics promote growth like nothing on Earth. Animals develop bigger, better and faster for a fraction of the cost and time.
The growth rate is so fantastic that in the 50 years since antibiotics were discovered, world food production has expanded to support a population more than THREE TIMES THE SIZE. And even more amazingly, off exactly the same amount of land – our planet is still as big as it was, half a century ago.
To do this of course, farming has become astronomically more intense. Expanding from the quaint pastoral myth of our childhood to the factory farms of today.
Ever heard of CAFOs?
That’s what industrial-scale factory farms are – Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations. Google for images of “CAFO” and you’ll see what we mean. Production so concentrated, it’s like animals herded into an over-crowded block of flats.
Such environments are so unhealthy that antibiotics are vital to keeping animals alive, let alone fattening them up. They compensate for the unnatural and unhealthy conditions – the everyday “veterinary” excuse for an industry that bucks against limiting antibiotics precisely because of AMR.
And as you’d expect, AMR on farms happens on an industrial scale – just like the farms themselves.
No wonder. Bacteria are the oldest and most successful living organisms on the planet. Capable of surviving intense heat, intense cold, and even heavily acid environments. No antibiotic has stood up to them for more than 25 years.
Bash bacteria all you like, they always win. So that factory farms become superbug factories.
Which means that total AMR on farms is a fast-approaching reality. By numbers alone, accelerating faster than among us humans.
And what happens when AMR on farms becomes “pan-resistant” – responsive to no antibiotics at all?
In their concentration camp environments, the animals will sicken and die. Contagion will spread among them like wildfire. Infecting neighbouring farms through contaminated manure, ground seepage and water supply.
Like all epidemics, it will happen suddenly. Overnight, millions of animals will be lost. 19 billion chickens, 1.4 billion cattle, 1 billion sheep and 1 billion pigs. Most of the world’s food supply – gone.
No food. Not for the 7½ billion we are now. Precious little for the 2½ billion we were 50 years ago, before this antibiotics disaster started. A one-way ticket for at least 5 billion of us – famine and death.
But we’re already dying anyway. Because of those same antibiotics.
Yes, from disease caused by antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
And more frighteningly, from the drip-drip sub-therapeutic doses of antibiotics we ingest every meal through our food.
All this, and obesity too
Antibiotics fatten up animals. We eat them, we fatten up from the same antibiotics. If not directly, then from their manure used to fertilise crops and other animal feed. Inescapable even if we’re vegetarian. Which is why two thirds of us are already obese.
But there’s a difference. Animals only survive fourteen months before they go to market. Bigger and fatter – a kind of short-term obesity.
We go for the long haul. Living on for decades, getting fatter and fatter, more and more obese. And paying the inevitable price for obesity – asthma, diabetes, heart disease and cancer. The long, slow road to painful and miserable death.
The UN meeting wants us to develop new antibiotics, use them more responsibly and cut down on the need for them through better hygiene.
Not good enough if we read the signs.
The ultimate price
Change or no change, all antibiotics will:
- Inevitably succumb to AMR, generating killer superbugs
- Push increasing numbers of us into accelerating obesity
- Unleash AMR on farms, triggering wide-scale disease, rapidly followed by famine
Three outcomes, all ending in death. Our miracle life-savers have become mass killers.
Enough tinkering with antibiotics now.
It’s time our leaders found some serious alternatives.
What’s up, Doc?
Picture Copyright: edu1971 / 123RF Stock Photo