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From Farm to Pharmacy: Wading Through the Muddied Waters of Antibiotic Resistance

In the year 2050 alone, 10 million people will die because of antibiotic resistance. With a statistic like this, you would think that the problem of antimicrobial resistance would be undeniable. Unfortunately, to much of the public, resistance to antibiotics is presented as theory rather than fact.

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In the year 2050 alone, 10 million people will die because of antibiotic resistance. With a statistic like this, you would think that the problem of antimicrobial resistance would be undeniable. Unfortunately, to much of the public, resistance to antibiotics is presented as a theory rather than a fact. We must acknowledge that resistance is real, because only by first recognizing the problem, can we start to solve it. It is vital that the Canadian government tighten their restrictions around antibiotic use. By reducing antibiotic consumption, we minimize the factors which create resistance, and therefore we reduce the production of resistant bacteria.

The problem of antibiotic resistance is complex. The sheer magnitude of antibiotic use, and our economic dependency on these drugs makes the problem appear almost insurmountable. Surprisingly, the human pharmaceutical industry is not responsible for most the world’s antibiotic consumption. In Canada, about 80% of all antibiotics are used in livestock farming. Naturally, the question arises: why are our animals so sick? The short answer to this question is that they’re not. While antibiotics certainly are used to treat ailing livestock, they are also added to animal feed to increase growth and prevent infections.

Many scientific studies have proven that the use of antimicrobial drugs in agriculture cause antibiotic resistance. In a randomized control study, pork raised using antibiotics contained elevated levels of resistant bacteria compared to pork raised without antibiotics. In addition, studies have confirmed that antibiotic resistant bacteria can easily spread from animals to humans.

Perhaps what is even more troubling than the vast amount of literature linking agricultural antibiotics to resistance, is how difficult it is to find up-to date information about North America’s antibiotic use. Much of Canada’s current legislation around agricultural antibiotics is so full of loop-holes that it bears more resemblance to a piece of beginner’s knitting than a legal document. When information is available, it is not always reliable. For example, the Union of Concerned Scientists, an organization which advocates for a reduction in agricultural antibiotics, reports that, annually, 24.6 million pounds of antimicrobials are used non-therapeutically in U.S. meat production. On the other hand, the Animal Health Institute, an industry sponsored organization, records the use of only 17.8 million pounds. In any case, when one compares the amount of antibiotics used in agriculture to the mere 3 million pounds used in U.S. human medicine, the difference is astounding. Reducing the amount of non-essential antibiotic use in human medicine would decrease antibiotic resistance; however, our focus should lie on the industry where we can make the largest impact. The bulk of our concerns should be centered on where the bulk of antibiotics are used: agriculture. 

Once we acknowledge that our current use of agricultural antibiotics is irresponsible, another controversy arises: what should be done about it? The utilization of antibiotics for disease prevention and growth purposes must be harshly scrutinized. In 2014, the Canadian Government banned the use of antibiotics for growth purposes. Many of the drugs previously used in growth production now require a veterinarian’s prescription. However, I am skeptical about the actual impact this policy will make. The Federal Government has little control over veterinarians, as their regulation falls under provincial control. The farmers can also request many of the same antibiotics they would have used to enhance growth for “preventative purposes.” Dr. Greg Douglas, Ontario’s chief veterinarian, believes that, "We're not going to achieve anything if we stop at the growth promotion discussion. In other jurisdictions, they've found that, the drugs are not used for growth promotion, wink, wink, they're used for disease prevention."

Ontario’s chief veterinarian is correct. We are not adequately preventing antibiotic resistance if we only restrict growth development practices. The use of antibiotics for disease prevention, otherwise known as prophylaxis, must also be reduced. The need for prophylaxis stems from the fact that livestock is kept in such close quarters that disease spreads rampantly. The obvious solution is to raise these animals in larger pens with adequate ventilation and sunlight. Of course, many people in the industry will raise concerns with the increase in cost associated with the expansion of living quarters. In my opinion, there is no price too high to ensure the safety of millions of lives on our planet.

There is no hard and fast solution to antibiotic resistance. The literature demonstrating the link between agricultural antibiotics and resistance, and the sheer magnitude of agricultural antibiotic use can feel overwhelming. Many necessary changes will cause the cost of meat to rise. This increase in price however should be viewed as an investment in our health and the health of our future generations. We must encourage the Canadian government to restrict the use of prophylactic antibiotics. In short, things need to change—the bacteria certainly are.


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