Agriculture industry science denial?

Original Reporting | By Eric Kroh |

Warner cited a 1999 Iowa State University study that concluded that the initial cost to producers of a ban on animal feed-grade antibiotics would be $6 per pig, and the industry would lose about $1 billion per year in profits. Increased costs would come partly from the need for additional troughs and space for pigs, the report said.

A National Pork Producers Council spokesman said the scientific evidence didn’t demonstrate how his industry’s practices contributed to antibiotic resistance in humans. “We have never said that we are no part of the problem of antibiotic resistance,” he said. “We don’t know what, if any, part we are.”

Sub-therapeutic doses of antibiotics allow livestock to be kept in more cramped in confined conditions because antibiotics make them resistant to the diseases they would otherwise contract in such close quarters. Additional veterinary treatments and longer weaning times for pigs would also add to costs, the study said.

But what if there were no cost to livestock producers to transitioning away from the non-therapeutic use of antibiotics? The federal government spends about $5 billion per year in so-called direct payments to farmers for growing crops, regardless of the crops’ market prices (other payments go to farmers if the price drops below a certain level or if natural disasters cause crop loss).

The direct payments are seen as wasteful and rife for elimination by both parties. Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget plan, for example, proposes cutting subsidies to farmers by $30 billion over 10 years, mostly through a reduction in direct payments. What if a fraction of that went to assisting livestock producers with curtailing the use of antibiotics?

Remapping Debate posed the question to Liz Wagstrom, chief veterinarian for the National Pork Producers Council. She said she thought producers would still resist, as they would be reluctant to give up what she said was a “tool to help produce healthier animals.”


Continue down the same path?

Warner said there is no evidence to show that the Danish ban on non-therapeutic uses of antibiotics has led to a public health benefit. Some studies have concluded that antibiotic resistance in human bacteria infections has not improved.

Mellon of the Union of Concerned Scientists responded that an immediate, sharp decline in antibiotic resistance disease in humans was not to be expected. “One of the problems with antibiotic resistance is that once you’ve generated it, if you withdraw the use of the antibiotics the traits don’t necessarily go away, they hang around in the bacteria,” she said. “You can’t expect that having generated this big problem that if we quit using antibiotics that we’ll return to a day when all of our pathogens were susceptible to drugs. That just won’t happen.”

But that is not an argument for not curtailing antibiotic use, Mellon said. “Of course the first rule of holes is when you’re in one you quit digging,” she continued. “From a public health standpoint what you want to do is not  make the problem any worse.”

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