Breeding Superbugs

08/13/2017 04:31 pm ET
Hogs in a concentrated animal feeding operation or CAFO. These are the animals eating antibiotics in their feed. Photo courtesy Wikipedia.

Robert Lee Metcalf was a distinguished entomologist who started his teaching and research at the University of California-Riverside. He invented carbamates, neurotoxic insecticides. The University of California demanded his patent be sold to a private chemical industry company.

Metcalf left Riverside for the University of Illinois where he continued his teaching and research. But he was becoming disenchanted with the establishment. He ridiculed the enthusiasm for pesticides among his colleagues, farmers, the chemical industry and government regulators. So in the 1987 summer issue of the Newsletter of the College of Arts and Sciences of the University of Illinois, he wrote a scathing critique of the chemical industry-farm-government complex. He said he was disappointment with America’s obsession with chemicals.

“The short-sighted and irresponsible use of pesticides and antibiotics is producing strains of monster-bugs that are resistant to our chemical weapons. Some strains of insects and microbes have appeared that are resistant to nearly everything in our chemical arsenal. It is difficult to see how anyone can remain intelligently optimistic about the future of chemical control. The outlook is dismal - and getting worse,” he wrote.

I met Metcalf in the mid-1980s at a meeting at the US Environmental Protection Agency. He was angry. Perhaps he had second thoughts about inventing neurotoxins. He could see the farmers and the industry were misusing them. He told me he could not stand the audacious and ludicrous advertisements of the chemical industry on the supposed “safety” of its pesticide products. He said it only took a few free drinks to corrupt government officials. He kept urging EPA to get rid of dangerous pesticides and to be more sensitive to public health and the environment.

But the superbugs already in force in 1987 were proof that neither the EPA nor the US Food and Drug Administration (the two federal agencies responsible for the wholesomeness of the Nation’s food and the integrity of the natural world) had the guts to reign in the excesses of the industry, including the livestock farmers dumping antibiotics into the feed of farm animals.

Of course, the 1980s was the era of Ronald Reagan in the United States. His administration pioneered devious ways the government could and did use in gutting environmental laws and almost driving to extinction environmental and public health protection.

I remember senior EPA officials mumbling their fears about being friendly to the environment and public health. For example, one of them connected the Office of Management and Budget in the White House with Integrated Pest Management. In the 1980s, IPM stood for using pesticides judiciously. And yet, OMB officials were warning EPA staff to leave IPM alone or see their budget slashed.

With the Reagan administration using the budget and deregulation as weapons, EPA barely survived. Its OMB bosses ordered it to shut down the only lab in the country that tested the efficacy of antibiotics or disinfectants. This lab was located in Beltsville, Maryland. EPA did OMB’s dirty work. It shut the Beltsville lab in 1982.

This retreat from public health protection, however, was not new. Each administration does the bidding of the industry. In 1979, the Jimmy Carter administration ordered EPA to cease demanding pesticide efficacy data from the chemical industry. Useless toxic chemicals had a free pass.

The Reagan administration was sleeping with the polluters. It was fine to let the industry sell hospitals probably useless (ineffective) antimicrobials. And if the farmers were dumb enough to stuff their animals with antibiotics for disease prevention and, supposedly, for giving animals an extra pound of flesh, that was fine.

The free market worked in mysterious ways.

Former Senator Paul Sarbanes (D - Maryland) was one of a few politicians who raised objections to the shutting down of the Beltsville lab. He denounced the Reagan administration for undermining “the Nation’s existing health” by “arbitrary and irresponsible budget cuts” and, “in some instances by sweeping deregulation, and often by the complex interplay between the two.”

The result of the continuing cowardliness and greed of the political class empowers the chemical and agribusiness industries in breeding monster-bugs that are almost immortal. For several decades, livestock farmers have made antibiotics part of the diet of billions of confined chicken, hogs, and cattle raised for slaughter.

Even the PBS Newshour, which has rarely dug into the compromised and hazardous architecture of “concentrated animal feeding operations,” dared bring to light recently this very old story.

Miles O’ Brien of the Newshour interviews Lance Price of George Washington University. Price says:

“You pack… [animals] together, snout to tail in the case of pigs, and beak to feather in the case of chickens and turkeys, they’re going to share bacteria. We have engineered a system that makes them sick. Rather than change that system, we actually just add low doses of antibiotics to try to prevent infections.”

O’ Brien agreed that Price was right in saying the feeding operations of livestock farmers become “fertile breeding grounds of disease.” This is where antibiotics lose their effectiveness. Humans eating farm animals also eat these useless chemicals. If they get an infection, however, they necessarily face monster-bugs invulnerable to antibiotics. O’ Brien said the evidence was strong “linking the use of antibiotics in livestock to the spread of drug-resistant bacteria in humans.”

Russ Kremer, hog farmer not using antibiotics for his animals, tells O’ Brien antibiotics are “lifesavers.” We need to “preserve them,” he says. “It’s the most important, the most critical health issue in the world.”

Kremer would agree livestock farmers have a safer alternative for their animals. Break down the confined spaces that lock them to perpetual stress and diseases. Let animals live their short lives in modest freedom out in the air, grass, and natural world. Those animals would rarely need antibiotics. And, second, our government should prohibit the current dangerous practices. Only then we may protect the antimicrobial lifesavers.

With Trump in power, the government is with the polluters.

Eat organic food and say no to concentrated animal feeding operations.

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