Preventing and cleaning up environmental pollution from sources like factory farming, especially in waterways, is crucial to controlling increasingly bullet-proof superbugs, a UN report said on 7 February. The UN warned that strains of bacteria resistant to antibiotics, known as antimicrobial resistance (AMR), could kill tens of millions of people by mid-century.
The global food system, particularly intensive animal agriculture, is heavily implicated in the growing AMR threat. This is because the agricultural sector is by far the biggest consumer of antimicrobials. It routinely administers them to farm animals. Estimates say agriculture uses around 70% of the global total.
Pollution is spreading superbugs
According to a Lancet study, superbugs were responsible for the deaths of an estimated 1.2 million people in 2019. The World Health Organization (WHO) says AMR is one of the top global health threats on the near-term horizon.
The disinfectants, antiseptics, and antibiotics that can help microbes become stronger are everywhere, from toothpaste and shampoo to cow’s milk and wastewater.
The UN Environment Programme (EP) report identified pollution as a key driver in the “development, transmission and spread” of AMR. It called for urgent action to clean up the environment and tackle the sources of pollution. The UN EP said:
With increasing pollution and lack of management of sources of pollution, combined with AMR in clinical and hospital settings and agriculture, risks are increasing.
Antimicrobial resistance is a natural phenomenon. However, the overuse and misuse of antibiotics in humans, other animals, and plants has made the problem worse. This means antibiotics may no longer work to fight the very infections they were designed to treat.
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The UN report said that pollution in the environment from key economic sectors has exacerbated the problem. These included the pharmaceutical and chemical manufacturing sectors and health care.
Factory farming and AMR
Agriculture is another major source of superbugs and their dispersal in the environment. The report points out that the use of fertilisers and pesticides on farms, for example, may increase AMR, as they can be rich in antimicrobials. Once antimicrobials enter the environment, such as waterways, they can seep into the wider food chain.
Intensive animal agriculture is also heavily implicated in AMR spread. This is because as the report highlights:
In intensive animal production systems, antimicrobials are frequently relied upon to maintain livestock health, welfare and productivity, including for control of diseases. In some jurisdictions, antimicrobials are still used as growth promoters.
The use of antibiotics in intensive animal operations, otherwise known as factory farming, varies depending on location. But it is often routine, not responsive. For instance, 76% of antibiotic use on farms in the UK is for group treatments, not individuals, according to the Alliance to Save Our Antibiotics. In other words, farmers administer them to healthy – not sick – animals en masse.
This overuse of antibiotics can lead to superbugs developing and ultimately getting into the wider environment, such as through the disposal of farm waste.
Superbugs in UK waterways
Research released in 2022 indicated that this is an issue in the UK. It found intensive animal farming led to AMR entering British waterways.
World Animal Protection, the Alliance to Save Our Antibiotics and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism carried out the probe. They analysed levels of resistance in bacteria in waterways and rivers in areas with high levels of factory farming and found superbugs in plentiful supply.
The probe showed, for example, that antibiotic-resistant E. coli and S.aureus were present in rivers close to factory farms for pigs and chickens, along with higher welfare outdoor farms. It also isolated the resistant bacteria, which can cause illness in humans and other animals, in the runoff of slurry from intensive dairy farms.
Critically, based on where the probe found resistance in bacteria, namely downstream or upstream of the farms, the higher-welfare farms didn’t appear to be contributing to superbugs to the environment but many of the intensive farms did.
A silent pandemic
Antimicrobial resistant genes are in waterways across the globe, from the Ganges River in India to the Cache la Poudre River in the US state of Colorado, the UN study found. As Jonathan Cox, senior lecturer in microbiology at the UK’s Aston University, who is not linked to the UN study, told Agence France-Presse (AFP):
This is a real issue, because rivers are often the source of our drinking water.
Cox described the problem as a “silent pandemic” that is happening largely unnoticed.
Prevention is key to tackling the issue, the UN said. It urged governments and international groups to address “key pollution sources”. These included sewage, city waste, healthcare delivery, pharmaceutical manufacturing, and intensive crop sectors.
Additionally, in relation to animal agriculture, it advised that:
A sustainable global food system would phase out antibiotic use in livestock for growth promotion and routine use of antimicrobials in food animal production, and instead focus on best practices in the production of healthy animals.
Progress on phasing out the routine use of antibiotics has already happened in some places. The EU, for instance, banned their routine use on farmed animals in 2022. The UK farming industry, meanwhile, has reduced antibiotic use by around half in the last several years.
Factory farms right conditions for disease
When it released the research findings on AMR in UK waterways, World Animal Protection called on the UK government to stop the spread of factory farms. It also said the government should ban routine use of antibiotics. Other groups like Compassion in World Farming appear in agreement that tackling AMR requires at least a reduction – if not an end – to factory farming.
This is because factory farming practices and antibiotic use go hand in hand. As Sentient Media has explained:
Factory farms create an environment in which disease can quickly and easily spread. At times, tens of thousands of animals are crowded into filthy and windowless sheds.
Lindsay Duncan, farming campaigns manager at World Animal Protection, further explained to the Canary that:
poor conditions on farms like overcrowding, mutilations, early weaning and lack of environmental enrichment raise the risk of illness and cause stress which lowers immune responses.
As such, Duncan emphasised that:
It is not simply about curbing animal waste from entering the environment, we need to raise welfare on farms, introduce stronger legislation so antibiotics cannot be used to compensate for poor hygiene, welfare, and husbandry.
Factory farming needs an overhaul
The vast majority of farm animals in the world – over 90% – live on factory farms. Reducing the risk of AMR spread from those farms means transforming the often poor conditions – such as having many animals cramped together – that are at the core of factory farming.
As Dr Shireen Kassam, consultant haematologist and founder of Plant-Based Health Professionals UK, said at the time of the release of the research on AMR in UK waters:
There is no doubt that to meaningfully reduce the health-related burden of antibiotic resistant infections we need to drastically reduce the production and consumption of animal-derived foods, with a special emphasis on eliminating intensive farming practices that necessitate the overuse of antibiotics.
In short, to meaningfully tackle the AMR threat, along with most other environmental crises of our time, intensive agriculture, including factory farms, will have to change, along with some people’s eating habits.
Additional reporting by Agence France-PresseSupport us and go ad-free
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