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 previous posts I have explained the controversy of using antibiotics in agricultural livestock in regards to the growing problem of antibiotic resistance. The issue becomes fuzzy though when we try to separate just how much the use of antibiotics contributes directly to resistant infections among producers and consumers. So should we even try to think of solutions to this problem? The answer remains yes. Even though I cannot give the measurable impact on human health that is attributed to agricultural antibiotic use, we know that the more antibiotics we use, the more resistance we will have. At the end of the day, we should be trying to limit the amount of human induced resistance and the agricultural industry can be a part of this process. There are many arguments for completely banning antibiotic use in livestock. I find this to be too extreme. Animals get sick and it is the farmer’s duty to help those animals. Sometimes antibiotics are a part of that process. If antibiotics are used for genuine medical purposes, farmers and veterinarians should be opting for drugs that are only used in animals, rather than in both humans and animals. If we reserve antibiotics that can be used in only humans for human purposes, we can lessen the pressure on bacteria to become resistant. If drug companies continue to rely on current products, rather than research new antibiotics, we will desperately need what few we have to treat human infections. While treating infection is a completely acceptable use for antibiotics, they should not be used for inducing animal growth with no other purpose other than to get fatter animals with a smaller amount of feed. Yes economics would push for the greatest return with the smallest investment, but there are other players in the game. The total cost of antibiotic-resistant infections on the globe would far exceed the costs of having to add another bag of feed to the trough. Furthermore, we should be pushing the agricultural industry to improve conditions for livestock rather than compensate for filthy, disease-promoting environments with a herd or flock-wide dose of antibiotics. Again economics drives farmers to make the biggest profit, as do consumers who always seek the lowest price, but the cost on public health and the future of medicine isn’t worth it. Finally, we must encourage the academic and research communities to continue the investigation on the impact of antibiotic use in agricultural livestock on human health. Consistent data collection techniques, controlled trials, and long-term studies would all be useful in understanding more about this problem. Until more people begin to tackle this problem, however, we will remain in the dark about the consequences of our agricultural choices.
In my mind, one of the greatest achievements of research is not only producing something that can be understood by the academic community, but by those who don’t have a PhD or Masters or even a Bachelors degree in the sciences. In this post I hope to break down the more complicated explanations I’ve found in the articles I’ve read to a clearer, simpler version of how antibiotic use in agriculture influences antibiotic resistance. I must admit, even this attempt at a “less complicated” version of the pathways of resistance will still be quite complicated. This is because there are multiple pathways that are all two-way streets so to speak. In total, there are four general pathways that the animal can interact with and resistant bacteria can move through. The first is the physical environment: soil, air, water, manure, et cetera. The second is the interactions that occur between animals: feeding, drinking, birthing, and general herd or flock behaviors. The third is the processing of the animal: shipment, slaughter, packaging, and storage. Finally, the fourth pathway is how humans handle the meat once it is purchased. Antibiotic resistant bacteria can be spread at any point along the route, making it difficult to separate what resistance antibiotics being fed to livestock caused, and what was caused by other sources. This is what I feel makes my research topic so difficult. Antibiotic resistance is dynamic in nature. What amount of resistance would occur naturally? What percentage of antibiotic resistant infections is caused directly by livestock rather than other sources? In other words, what is the true impact of agricultural antibiotic use? Without knowing this answer, we cannot begin to make decisions in policy or seek solutions to the growing problem of antibiotic resistance. Nevertheless, I hope to present some possible options in future posts to lead us closer to that answer.
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!