Forget all you ever thought about antibiotics being medicine. Here’s a crunch issue bigger than any we’ve ever faced.
Bigger than global warming, bigger than thermo-nuclear war, maybe even bigger than a massive asteroid strike.
Already impossible to stop
It’s a crunch we face now, with repercussions going on for the next 30 or 40 years. All caused by antibiotics – or more accurately, our own shocking misuse of them.
Because, no, no, no, not medicine. Around 80% or more of world production goes into agriculture. Shovelled into plants and animals in industrial quantities – as the most phenomenal quick-acting GROWTH BOOSTERS of all time.
And we mean phenomenal. Bigger, better, faster – a money-making miracle too.
50 years ago, when the growth boosting side-effects of antibiotics were first discovered, the world’s population was 2½ billion. And every inch of farming land was flat-out, producing food to feed them. Even then, it wasn’t enough. There were shortages, with millions going hungry.
Today, our world population has swelled to a whopping 7½ billion. But the world hasn’t got any bigger. The planet is still the same size as it was 50 years ago. THREE times the people feeding off exactly the SAME land space.
Because the miracle difference is antibiotics, particularly in the last 20 years.
Growth boosting by numbers
Amazingly, just by boosting animal and plant growth worldwide, the same land can now support a population that’s THREE times bigger.
But it’s not going to stop is it?
By 2050, world population will be bursting at the seams with a massive 9.7 billion of us – rising to 11.2 billion by 2100. Numbers in Africa alone are expected to double – reaching 4.2 billion by the end of the century. That’s the same as the entire world population in 1977, barely 40 years ago.
Which means don’t expect the use of antibiotics in agriculture to slow down any time soon. With ANOTHER 3.7 billion of us to feed by the end of the century, factories are going to be blasting round the clock to keep pace.
It’s going to be with all the regular antibiotics our doctors know and love too. Trimethoprim, oxytetracycline, ciprofloxacin, azithromycin, cefotaxime, doxycycline, sulfamethoxazole, erythromycin, clarithromycin and ofloxacin are all regularly used by the JCB-load.
And not just the regulars, it’s the emergency ones too. Even colistin – regarded by medics as the ultimate medicine of last resort – was being pumped into pigs at 11,942 tonnes per annum at the end of last year.
There’s only one problem.
With that kind of consumption, currently around 240,000 tonnes a year, the bacteria they’re being used against have had ample opportunity to develop resistance. Already, so many have developed immunity to antibiotics, that doctors are now looking at an Armageddon where ALL of them stop working.
And here’s the crunch. Well, Crunch 1, at any rate.
Thanks to this antimicrobial resistance (AMR), the world-wide move to limit antibiotics in agriculture is gathering ground – a tadpole going up against a whale.
Because it’s not going to happen is it?
Pull the plug on antibiotics in agriculture and suddenly there’s not enough food. Enough for only 2½ billion, not the 7½ billion we are today. Which means 5 billion people are going to go hungry. TWO THIRDS of the world population.
Famine on a scale never seen before. And what government, anywhere, is going to want that on their hands?
Like it or not, antibiotics are a train we cannot get off. Which means thanks for jumping up and down, Doc, we’re going to carry on as is.
The “bigger” problem
Which brings us to Crunch 2.
Only this time, Doc, you’re not jumping up and down enough. Not nearly enough.
Because right now, thanks to antibiotics, we’re also staring at the biggest medical crisis of all time.
Two thirds of adults are already at the start of this slippery slope. So are one third of children. And it all comes back to why antibiotics are used in agriculture – they make living things fatter.
Since we’re all chowing down food that contains the most phenomenal quick-acting GROWTH BOOSTERS of all time, we’re getting fat too.
Which means serious obesity. The kind that leads to type 2 diabetes, heart disease or cancer. A slow motion disaster of misery and death.
All triggered by antibiotics. Which all of us – unknowingly – are already on. A low background dose in every food we eat – meat, fish, vegetables, fruit. Milk too. Even the water we drink.
Think again. Surprisingly, farm animals only absorb around 20% of the nutrients they eat. The rest is excreted, to become the manure that fertilises plant crops and enriches the soil. Rain soaks it deep into the earth, leaching through into our rivers.
So we’re getting the antibiotics alright. In sub-therapeutic doses with every meal, just like the 19 billion chickens, 1.4 billion cattle and 1 billion each of sheep and pigs that currently feed us.
And if antibiotics can boost metabolisms from an egg to full-grown roasting chicken in 6 weeks – or from new-born calf to Aberdeen Angus sirloin steak in 16 months instead of four years – what are they doing to us?
Yeah, maybe we’re fat like the gurus tell us, because we lounge around playing computer games all day, glugging Coke and pigging out on pizza. And sure, that kind of couch potato lifestyle has got to have an influence.
But ask yourself, how come so MANY of us have got so large in the last 20 years? The same time period that antibiotics in food production have ramped up Big Time.
Those phenomenal growth boosters are working on us too, through the food we eat – and we’re paying the price.
Which means, face it – we’re going to get fatter and fatter. And lumps of lard, we’ll all fall victims to too much nutrient intake – making ourselves candidates for diabetes, heart disease, cancer and worse.
It doesn’t happen to the animals, their lives are too short. Which is why there’s no scandal or outcry, the issue is invisible.
But us humans have decades ahead of us. Plenty of time for the slow, debilitating effects of obesity to take hold, for the complications to set in, ready to drag us down to an unpleasant and premature death.
If in doubt, panic
Crunch time, world wide. In an epidemic that has crept up on us with such stealth, our watchdog heavies have yet to respond to beyond the odd rumblings about sugar tax and collectively throwing their hands up.
But yes, it’s happening – and two thirds of us are already on the slippery slope.
It will keep happening too, even if antibiotics are removed altogether from medical use, because they don’t work. Our daily dose will come through in our food and drink, continuing to overstimulate our absorption processes.
We won’t even know it’s happening, till we tip the scales further than we ever used to – and waistbands somehow expand larger than we ever dreaded.
Even going vegetarian won’t avoid antibiotics exposure, because the damage will already have been done. Jump-started by antibiotics fed to us for childhood ailments – fat by the time we’re five, with an even fatter future on the way.
So there we have it. Crunch, crunch. Famine or obesity.
And it’s our own fault too. We opened the Pandora’s Box of antibiotics by our own choice. We wanted to go bacteria-bashing and failed to think through the consequences.
Now we have no options. The issue is too big to address because we’ve never learned – all nations together – to unite in the face of a common cause.
Unless we do though, we’re going to wind up either very hungry – or big, bulky and helpless, like the dinosaurs.
The end is nigh.
Picture Copyright: fizkes / 123RF Stock Photo