The connection between antibiotics and animal agriculture is known. Maybe not as well known as it should be, but it hasn't remained hidden for the most part. An entire page on the Food and Drug Administration's (FDA) website is dedicated to just such a topic. For a large part, what remains hidden is just how powerful the combined pharmaceutical and animal agriculture industries have become. In turn, this influences government policy, human and animal health, along with heavily swaying our approaches to addressing the climate crisis.
What We Need To Know About The Connection Between Pharmaceuticals and Animal Agriculture
In our quest for bigger, faster, better, and cheaper, we shouldn't be shocked that in 1950 a New York laboratory found that adding antibiotics to livestock feed accomplished two things: accelerated the animals' growth and was more cost-effective than traditional additives. The news was met with celebration. It meant farmers could now attempt to meet the growing demand for meat not just in the United States but around the world. The post-WWII boom and later introduction of the modern grocery store resulted in a growing population hungry to consume — everything and anything, including animal products. At the same time, as farmland became more expensive due to urbanization, costs were lowered for farmers who could produce more poultry, pork, and/or beef in a shorter amount of time.
From the beginning, pharmaceutical companies Merck, Pfizer, and American Cyanamid (which is no longer in business) worked hand in hand with the agricultural sector to provide medicated feeds and water additives, specifically in concentrated animal operations. Far from being isolated to what we think of in terms of livestock, Merck, in particular, created an antibiotic, sulfaquinoxaline, to be used in commercial beehives to curb infections in farmed fish and prevent mastitis in the dairy industry.
Heralded as a solution for one and for all, it was and to this day remains hard to take off the rose-colored glasses.
Following The Money Downstream
As early as the 1970's some lobbied against the use of antibiotics in animal feed, citing the fact that it was creating antimicrobial resistance (AMR) in individuals consuming said meat. Since then, this connection has become better understood, and countless papers tackle this very subject in scientific detail. But change has been hard to come by. From the beginning, the animal agricultural and pharmaceutical industries have walked hand in hand, forming powerful lobbying blocks that can sway legislation.
In 2013 and 2014, when three bills were presented, all of which would tighten restrictions on the use of antibiotics, they were met with fierce opposition. "Pharmaceutical companies…spent at least $14.3 million lobbying Congress." Adding to the mounting opposition, the agricultural sector chipped in an additional $9.2 million. It was further reported that Health Committee members (House Energy and Commerce) had received a total of $73,500 in contributions from several leading agricultural groups. Unsurprisingly, the bills went nowhere.
Working Against Public Health
A 2018 paper Antibiotic Use in Agriculture and Its Consequential Resistance in Environmental Sources: Potential Public Health Implications (Manyi-Loh, Mamphweli, Meye & Okoh) lay bare the fact that the growing antibiotic resistance is of "great public health concern because the antibiotic-resistant bacteria associated with the animals may be pathogenic to humans, easily transmitted to humans via food chains, and widely disseminated in the environment via animal wastes." But this fact alone is not enough to upend a multibillion-dollar industry.
That same year Animal Pharm reported that pharmaceutical companies were earning an estimated $5 billion a year from antibiotics specifically for farm animals. This totaled about 70% of all antibiotic use in the United States. So while the adverse side effects are very much understood, time and time again, concerned scientists, industry experts, politicians, and individuals are met with resistance from the powerful lobby interests of the industry.
Eighteen-month-old Noah Craten was hospitalized after becoming infected with Salmonella. While usually, this wouldn't be headline-worthy, an estimated 1.3 million people in the United States are infected with Salmonella annually. Noah had been exposed to an antibiotic-resistant strain that originated from a concentrated animal feed operation (CAFO), specifically a poultry operation. He underwent several treatments that ultimately left him with permanent damage.
Due to the high use of antibiotics on CAFOs, there has been a direct link to antibiotic resistance in human populations. "Transfer occurs in multiple different ways including through meat (consumptions) and the environment." Continued use of antibiotics in animal feed and waters will inevitably lead to modern antibiotics becoming ineffective. Additionally, the problem will only compound. By 2050 some researchers have estimated that AMR could lead to the death of 10 million people annually.
Detangling the Web
It is a well-known fact that the animal agricultural industry needs a major overhaul, specifically in the face of climate change. A significant contributor to emissions, it still remains a complex subject to broach, never mind overhaul. But as deforestation continues in the name of beef production, as waterways are continuously polluted with animal waste, and air quality suffers due to desertification from large animal operations we need to realize that the resulting illnesses cannot be effectively treated if we are ingesting the very thing that makes us resistant to it. We are propping up both the problem and the solution. Only the problems are becoming too big to solve unless immediate and severe action is taken.
It's easy to understand why these two industries have so much influence. We rely on medications and food to survive. The unfettered quest for growth has gone unchecked, putting company profits above human, animal, and environmental health. Knowing that 70% of antibiotic use in the United States goes to farm animals, it's not hard to realize it would never be in a pharmaceutical company's interest to decrease their usage. At least not under how our current economic system operates.
The unfortunate story here is that farmers were struggling to meet demand. They struggled to pay their bills while providing for their communities. They struggled against the rapid urbanization post-WWII. But as time marched on and as the family farm disappeared and corporate contracts popped up in their place, we could not disentangle the two industries. What once were two industries supporting one another — both looking for solutions has now become a monstrosity which plays with the very lives of the people they purport to help.