The same antibiotics that improve and save so many human lives are also used to promote growth in farmed animals. In the US, the antibiotics used in industrial farming far exceed the amount given to humans, likely more than threefold.1 In 2019, a massive 13 million pounds of the anti-biotics used on factory farms were medically important drugs like penicillins and tetracyclines.2
The unnecessary “subtherapeutic” use of these life-saving drugs to increase industry profits contributes to the emergence of drug resistant superbugs. And by propping up an agricultural system built upon crowding sick, immunocompromised animals together, the use of these drugs indirectly contributes to the emergence of novel viral pathogens like influenza and coronavirus that have the potential to cause human pandemics.
Part of the solution is obvious enough: we must alter farming methods so that they require fewer and ultimately no non-therapeutic drugs. As New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof argued, we “need to curb the way modern agribusiness madly overuses antibiotics, leaving them ineffective for sick humans.”3
But it’s not necessarily a simple thing for a farmer to eliminate nontherapeutic antibiotic use. Each industry will need to address this issue differently and collectively to achieve lasting change. Consider the poultry industry—where arguably the most dangerous use of antibiotics takes place. For upwards of 99 percent of the chickens and turkeys raised for meat, their very genetics have been altered in synchronization with the development of specialized drug-laced feeds.
As poultry breeders abandoned traditional breeding techniques and engineered animals with the narrow aim of increasing growth and feed conversion rates, they also introduced a number of unwanted side effects, including weakened immune systems. The poultry industry knows about these problems, but instead of breeding healthier and slower-growing birds, its leaders have opted to “co-engineer” chickens and feed to make unhealthy animals as productive as possible. For decades the poultry industry has used drugs in feed to compensate for immune deficiencies caused by their Frankenstein methods of breeding. The result is that to eliminate antibiotics on a large scale, the present methods of raising birds needs to be changed from bottom to top.
In fact, even if consumers buy antibiotic-free, pastured chickens, they have no choice but to support the misuse of antibiotics. How so? While buying chicken labeled as antibiotic free or organic does ensure that the chicken you eat was not fed antibiotics, you can be quite certain that many of that bird’s parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents who were crossed to produce the bird were regularly given antibiotics.
The most pressing problem with the overuse of antimicrobials in poultry exists not on “grower” farms, which raise the birds we eat, but on “breeder” farms. The chickens and turkeys we eat today are conceived on breeder farms, hatched in specialized hatcheries, and then move to separate grower farms. Most people don’t even know there are specialized breeder and grower farms, but this is a longstanding feature of the modern poultry industry. Historically this was advantageous because it allowed farmers to specialize in a particular area of production, but in today’s industry it is unavoidable because the hybrid chickens and turkeys people eat are “dead end” animals incapable of producing viable offspring.
Unless you buy a true heritage, standard-bred bird, even if you buy a chicken that had a relatively good life and was raised without drugs, that chicken’s parents and grandparents and great-grand parents almost certainly spent their lives confined in factory farm breeding facilities. In these facilities, the birds’ longer lives lead to an especially intense exposure to antibiotics and other antimicrobials. In contrast, true heritage chickens and turkeys have not been aggressively engineered in ways that compromise their immune systems.
Put simply, the public health risks posed by the use of antibiotics and antimicrobials in agriculture are symptoms of a larger problem: factory farming. The only sustainable solution is to change the way we eat and farm.
If you’re concerned about the dangers posed by anti-microbial use on today’s factory farms, perhaps it can serve as a motivation to reconsider what you eat. Moving meat from the center to the side of your plate, or off your plate altogether, is a powerful way you can make a statement against factory farming. If you eat meat, take steps to obtain it from a farmer you know and trust.4 Working together, we can change the way American eats and farms!
Want to understand more about antibiotics in animal production, including advice about speaking to local animal farmers? Check out Antibiotics 101.