It was reported last month that bacteria resistant to Colistin had been found in humans, pigs and pig meat in China. Colistin is the antibiotic of last resort, used against bacterial infections resistant to all others, and the source of the resistance is thought to be intensive factory farms. Penicillin was discovered in 1928 and revolutionised medicine but, with no major discoveries of antibiotics for treating E. coli and similar bacteria in 30 years, the World Health Organisation has warned that many common infections will no longer have a cure and could once again kill unabated. Indeed, global deaths resulting from antibiotic resistance are predicted to rise to 10 million a year by 2050.
There is no doubt that intensive livestock production is contributing to the problem. For years antibiotics were routinely fed to pigs and poultry in the UK to minimise disease in overcrowded, stressful conditions, but also to speed up growth. Growth-promoting use has since been banned in the UK and the EU, but some vets continue to prescribe antibiotics to sometimes tens of thousands of animals, even when none are sick; a practise prohibited in organic farming. As a result, roughly 40% of all antibiotics used in the UK are administered in agriculture, with no sign of this abating. This is clearly insane and not worth the risk, but is set to continue because, if you’ll forgive my cynicism, you can’t expect those making money from selling or using antibiotics to contribute to reducing their use; capitalism just doesn’t work like that. This is a job for government, removed from the corruption of commercially-motivated lobbying.
Vets and intensive farmers argue that such extensive antibiotic use is essential on welfare grounds; a little hard to accept if you have ever visited an intensive pig or poultry farm. I and many others would argue that the best animal welfare standards involve providing a diet and environment where something approaching natural behaviour is possible, which is what organic standards require. The meat is more expensive, but can we really afford the cheap stuff?