Antimicrobial resistance is a very controversial issue that frequently pits human medicine against animal agriculture.
A friend recently became ill while away from home and went to the local hospital for treatment. When the attending physician learned my friend was involved in beef production, he said, “You agriculture guys use 80% of all antibiotics. No wonder we have so much resistance!” My friend was dumbstruck.
I’m not sure any response would have satisfied this physician. After all, it’s clear that some physicians believe food animal agriculture and food animal veterinarians are the primary cause of antimicrobial resistance.
Antimicrobial resistance is a very controversial issue that frequently pits human medicine against animal agriculture. That wedge is driven further by such misguided legislative attempts as the “Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act” in Congress, and anti-animal agriculture groups seeking to further their agendas.
This division has resulted in finger-pointing and accusations between the very groups that should be working together to share data and develop approaches that will truly provide benefit. The bottom line is that the issue of antimicrobial resistance is real, is complex, and won’t be resolved by activist agendas or legislation.
A Closer Look: Look For More Regulation On Antibiotics
Listening solely to those seeking to limit or eliminate antimicrobial use in food animals (see “A what-if question on antibiotics”), one could easily conclude that “improper” use of antimicrobials is the sole cause of this resistance. One might also conclude that antimicrobial resistance would be resolved if we stopped such “improper” use.
However, bacteria recently have been discovered in the Lechuguilla Cave in New Mexico and below the Arctic permafrost that have existed there for perhaps millions of years. Without exposure to humans or any type of therapeutic drugs, these bacterial populations demonstrate resistance to some modern antimicrobials. This indicates that antimicrobial resistance isn’t a new phenomenon, and it can occur with or without medical exposure to antibiotics.
A couple of definitions might be in order here:
- An antimicrobial is a substance that can destroy or inhibit the growth of microorganisms (such as bacteria).
- Meanwhile, an antibiotic is a substance that can destroy or inhibit the growth of microorganisms, and is produced by, or derived from, certain fungi, bacteria or other organisms.
Antibiotics are just one type of antimicrobial, and are produced by such organisms as other bacteria. This may explain why these ancient bacteria found in the cave and below the permafrost demonstrated resistance to modern therapeutic antibiotics – they were naturally exposed to antibiotics being produced by their cohorts.
It also indicates that “improper” use of antimicrobials isn’t the sole cause of resistance; resistance can occur simply as a result of exposure to antibiotics.
Of course, this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be careful about antimicrobial use. Antimicrobial resistance may never be solved, but judicious antibiotic use is a primary component of managing the problem.
But singling out agricultural use of antibiotics is truly a red herring, because everyone who uses antibiotics must be judicious in their use. This includes food animal agriculture, all veterinarians, and physicians and their patients.
Human medicine, veterinary medicine and animal agriculture have all been guilty of improper use of antimicrobials at times. Conflict arises when it appears that attempts to control antimicrobial resistance are aimed solely at animal agriculture. Activists and politicians have a tendency to never let a good conflict go to waste, so it’s in their best interest to maintain, and even inflame, the conflict.
That’s especially true in the case of activists, where heightened conflict can result in more donations. Thus, their worst-case scenario is to be marginalized by the prospect of human medicine, veterinary medicine, and animal agriculture beginning to work together. But this is exactly what is essential if we are to have fair and meaningful resolution to the problem.
Dave Sjeklocha, DVM, is director of animal health for Cattle Empire, LLC, of Satanta, KS. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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