Saturday, 24 March 2012

Doping Pigs and the Tragedy of the Commons

A lawsuit brought by some environmental groups (not my favorite ones) has seemed to force the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to finish up what it started doing 35 years ago, but cowering from a bullying livestock industry, never did. What FDA started to do 35 years ago Was study whether it should ban the use of penicillin and tetracycline to promote growth in agricultural animals. What scientists commonly believe is that reckless use of antibiotics by the agricultural industry has helped breed new generations of super, antibiotic-resistant bugs. The World Health Organization reports that about 440,000 new cases emerge each year of anti-microbial resistance to treatment; 150,000 eventually die. The evidence once might have been considered sketchy; not any more. The ag lobby is delusional when it claims there is no link. 80 percent of all antibiotic use in the U.S. is for agricultural use. A causal link between agricultural use and anti-microbial resistance is now widely-accepted by scientists.

What is tragic about this spiral of abuse and death? Surely the death of 150,000 people every year from a characteristically reckless livestock industry is tragic. But what is also comically tragic is that the livestock industry doesn't really benefit in the long run from being on this accelerating antibiotic treadmill. Because of increased resistance to antibiotics, livestock farmers find themselves having to race to keep pace with the superbugs. They have to administer more antibiotics and more sophisticated antibiotics in the vain hope that their pharmaceutical patrons can stay ahead of the superbugs. In fact, the increased cost of antibiotic use, in some cases, outweigh the growth-enhancing benefits.

So why do livestock farmers do it? They have to just to keep competitive. Like doping professional bicycle racers, like doping baseball players, livestock farmers are stuck. They are stuck because if they refrain, their individual forbearance will do no good, and they will lose money. Because everyone is doing it, no one benefits by stopping, even though everyone would benefit if everyone stopped. That is what is truly a tragedy of the commons: where those stuck in the rat race are all collectively working tomtheir collective detriment. In this case, there is also the matter of 150,000 people dying each year.

1 comment:

  1. I knew the extensive use of antibiotics was a problem, but I had no idea how critical the issue was!

    Interesting that it takes a law suit from environmentalists in order for the FDA to take another stab at standing up to the agriculture lobby.