As I prepare to head back to the ‘Burg tomorrow, I’d like to share my final thoughts on my Monroe project and research as a whole. In regards to my original topic of “The Consequences of Antibiotic and Hormone Use in Agricultural Livestock” I almost immediately realized it was to broad of a topic to cover. What I needed was to be specific. As my research progressed, I found my topic narrowing to “The Impact of Antibiotic Use in Agricultural Livestock on Antibiotic-Resistance.” The great thing about research is that there are occasions when your investigation guides your focus, rather than the original idea dominating the process. The natural narrowing of my topic was actually a part of the research process I was happy to experience. The most frustrating part of my research experience was sifting through the nearly 30 articles I had collected. First, they were extremely repetitive and often dense. Second, they all ended with the firm affirmation that more research needed to be done on the topic. Third, there were no consistent data collection methods and very little empirical data at all. Finally, the empirical data that was given was often years old, some dating back from the 1980’s. I wish I had the resources and power to push forward the research that’s needed to unify the thoughts that have been tossed around from the 1970’s about agriculture’s impact on antibiotic-resistance. But I don’t. And it doesn’t seem that anyone is concerned enough at this moment to really execute the data collection and analysis that needs to be done. This seems to be the case in many research problems. This project exposed me to the huge competition for resources (mainly money) for research of any kind. It is a difficult world to compete in, but can often produce amazing findings. I hope future research on this topic can produce more quantitative results that can measure the true impact that the agricultural livestock industry has on antibiotic-resistance.
In my first blog post, I discussed the issue of antibiotic use in livestock from a farmer’s perspective. For the farmer, it boils down to economics. Antibiotics help to promote growth and limit infection. A healthy herd/flock leads to greater output which leads to greater profits. The issue becomes more complicated, however, when we view it from a public health official’s perspective. Health agencies such as the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention all agree that antibiotic resistance is one of the greatest public health threats we currently face. There is also agreement about the fact that increased antibiotic use is directly correlated to increased antibiotic resistance. This is what leads our pubic health official down to the farm. The ultimate question is how antibiotic use in livestock impacts human health. The greatest concern is the transfer of resistant genes from the bacterial flora of livestock through meat to humans. The routes of transfer are extremely complicated and often confounded by other factors making the assessment of the public health impact far from simple. From the articles I’ve read, a third agreement surfaces: there is no consensus about the impact of antibiotic use in agriculture on human health. This is where my research really feels like research. There are conflicting ideas and conclusions, barely any consistent data collection techniques, and few articles from the last couple of years. Moving forward I have the goals of clarifying the routes by which resistance genes can move between livestock and humans, better quantify the amount of impact agricultural antibiotic use has on resistance, and possible courses of action for the future. Stay tuned!
Humans have an odd tendency to form opinions, often times with not enough information and little to no evidence to support their beliefs. That is what I have unfortunately done with this Monroe project. When selecting the topic of “Antibiotic Use in Agricultural Livestock,” I already had a semi-formed opinion on the subject before I had even read a single article! A research sin! Fortunately I am beginning to reach a more educated, well-informed opinion that is still shifting and bending with each new piece of information. Going into this project my conclusions were black and white. Giving cows antibiotics to make them fat is bad. Just about the roughest conclusion anyone could make. My research is proving (as any research should) that the issue is far from that simple of an idea. The biggest realization that I have come to so far is that agriculture is a business. It follows the rules of economics. From the farmer’s perspective, it is in his best interest to make the product, meat, milk or eggs for example, at the lowest possible cost. Antibiotics are proven to lower the costs and increase the profits of meat producers. To demonstrate this economic point, imagine a theoretical herd of dairy cows. The cows are in direct contact with each other, sharing food and water, waste, and the air. The farmer observes Cow 1 has decreased milk production and is persistently coughing. A vet consultation reveals Cow 1 has a bacterial infection. His entire herd is now at risk of become sick, having lower milk outputs, causing possible miscarriages of future calves, and risking his own livelihood. It is in his best interest to put ALL his cows on a low dose of antibiotics, even if they show no signs of illness, to protect them from acquiring the infection of Cow 1 in the first place. The one time cost of the drugs would prevent other cows from falling ill and suffering, reduce the risk of losing calves, keep milk production high, and would be far lower than the theoretical costs if more cows fell ill. It was the economic, and frankly ethical choice to keep his cows healthy. This is where the question of antibiotic use in agriculture becomes complicated. Clearly, farmers have incentives to give their animals antibiotics, whether for treatment of illness, prevention of illness, and/or to keep production high. On the other hand, public health officials have concerns over the human health costs of such antibiotic use. What is the impact on humans? Is there a significant enough threat of resistance spillover between livestock and humans that changes should be made? Or is the animal resistance reservoir negligible? These are just some of the questions I hope to find answers to as I continue with my research. I just have to remember the answers are never black and white.