How Factory Farms May Be Killing Us
A report from the CDC reveals the grave dangers of antibiotic resistance and says factory-farmed animals are a big contributor.
What would our healthcare system look like if we couldn’t
perform surgeries, administer chemotherapy, replace joints, treat
diabetes? It would be the end of modern medicine as we know it. A new report from the Centers for Disease Control warns we could be headed toward that very future.
Antibiotics revolutionized medicine in the 1940s, saving
millions of lives over the last 70 years. But during that time bacteria
have evolved to become resistant to certain antibiotics. The more
antibiotics we use, the quicker resistance builds up. This has deadly
In the report, “ Antibiotic Resistance Threats in the United States, 2013,”
the CDC estimates (conservatively) that 2 million people in the U.S.
get antibiotic-resistant infections, and 23,000 die from them every
In addition to the loss of life, it’s also costly.
“In most cases, antibiotic-resistant infections require
prolonged and/or costlier treatments, extend hospital stays, necessitate
additional doctor visits and healthcare use, and result in greater
disability and death compared with infections that are easily treatable
with antibiotics,” the report states. “Estimates vary but have ranged as
high as $20 billion in excess direct healthcare costs, with additional
costs to society for lost productivity as high as $35 billion a year
One of the biggest culprits is our overuse and misuse of
antibiotics in medicine. “Research has shown that as much as 50% of the
time, antibiotics are prescribed when they are not needed or they are
misused (for example, a patient is given the wrong dose),” the report
says. “This not only fails to help patients; it might cause harm. This
inappropriate use of antibiotics unnecessarily promotes antibiotic
resistance. Antibiotics are a limited resource. The more that
antibiotics are used today, the less likely they will still be effective
in the future.”
But there’s another culprit—our feedlot system of raising
animals for meat and dairy in "concentrated animal feeding operations"
“Antibiotics are also commonly used in food animals to
prevent, control, and treat disease, and to promote the growth of
food-producing animals,” says the report.
The report states unequivocally: “The use of antibiotics
for promoting growth is not necessary, and the practice should be phased
This should be a death blow to feedlot operations...if we’re smart. As the report explains:
Antibiotics are widely used in food-producing animals, and according to data published by FDA,
there are more kilograms of antibiotics sold in the United States for
food-producing animals than for people. This use contributes to the
emergence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria in food-producing animals.
Resistant bacteria in food-producing animals are of particular concern
because these animals serve as carriers.
Our industrial agriculture system produces a whole lot of
corn, which we feed to cows and other livestock, and which does not make
for a healthy diet. Throw tens of thousands of those animals together
in a filthy environment of high-stress conditions, poor diet, and growth
hormones, and you have antibiotic use that has grown so much it’s now a
threat to human health and modern medicine.
There's a lot at stake. As the report states:
Many of the advances in medical
treatment—joint replacements, organ transplants, cancer therapy, and
treatment of chronic diseases such as diabetes, asthma, rheumatoid
arthritis—are dependent on the ability to fight infections with
antibiotics. If that ability is lost, the ability to safely offer people
many life-saving and life-improving modern medical advantages will be
lost with it.
So, what should we chose? More feedlot meat or more risks to public health and modern medicine?
Tara Lohan, a senior editor at AlterNet, has just launched the new project Hitting Home, chronicling extreme energy extraction. She is the editor of two books on the global water crisis, including most recently, Water Matters: Why We Need to Act Now to Save Our Most Critical Resource. Follow her on Twitter @TaraLohan.