Transition Marlborough general blog

Organics, climate, oil – and the future of modern medicine?

Published by JudyH on 25 March 2012

     Many people already know of the benefits of organic agriculture in restoring soil structure, replenishing the soil’s fertility and its ability to capture CO2.  Concerned people are also increasingly aware of the danger of depending on petroleum-based fertilizers and pesticides, when the oil is running out.

   Less well known is another threat -  highlighted by headlines in recent weeks –also related to industrial agriculture:  Margaret Chan, director general of the WHO (the World Health Organization) warns that “the end of modern medicine as we know it” is now in sight.

     She claimed that, due to overuse of antibiotics, leading to an explosion of antimicrobial resistance,‘every antibiotic ever developed is at risk of becoming useless, making once-routine operations impossible’ – as well as drugs to treat TB, malaria, bacterial infections and HIV/AIDS, not to mention simple treatments for cuts or a strep throat.

   Most of us have heard the warning of over-prescription of antibiotics in medicine. 

   However, medical specialists and health experts, as quoted in the Ecologist last year (23.5.11)  report that use of antibiotics in humans ‘pales in comparison’ to its use in the agri-food industry, which accounts, globally for up to 70% of antibiotic use.

    Animals such as pigs and poultry raised in cramped, confined, unsanitary conditions (not to mention cattle fed, in some countries, wholly on an unnatural diet of grain) are given antibiotics as feed additives – just to keep them alive.

    The article  reports a study judging that ‘agriculture is believed to now account for the majority of antibiotic-resistance in food poisening cases.’

    A study from the prestigious US John Hopkins university (quoted in the Johns Hopkins magazine, Vol 61, No.3) points out that ‘Scientists know that resistant pathogens can travel from farms by air, water, bird, housefly, chicken truck or manure spreader – or person-to-person, by farm worker.’

   (It should probably be mentioned, that scientists such as the UK’s Michael Antonio, have warned also of the risk posed by antibiotic marker genes used in GM crop varieties which, again, could threaten an explosive development of resistant microbes.)

     Some of this thinking is still controversial.  After strong opposition from farming groups, the Government earlier this year blocked moves to prevent the promotion of  antimicrobial medicines to farmers.  But it should be noted that it was the Government’s own veterinary officials who had proposed the ban.

    And, hearteningly, only days ago a US  federal judge has demanded that the FDA (the Federal Drugs Administration) act to drastically limit the widespread heavy routine administration of penicillin and tetracyclines to farm animals in that country.

    But in any case, the crucial question must be: is this a risk we want to take?  What is the real price of our current unhealthy dependence on quantities of cheap meat and dairy?

   Could it include the future of modern medicine?

    At that price, hopefully an increasing number of us will bulk up our vegetables and pulses, and for savour and flavour, look for local, well-sourced produce (particularly pork, poultry and dairy) – or an organic label.