Calgary – University of Calgary economics professor Aidan Hollis has proposed a solution to the growing public health crisis caused by an overabundance of antibiotics in agriculture and aquaculture industries.
In a new paper published in the New England Journal of Medicine, Hollis and co-author Ziana Ahmed suggest that user fees should be imposed on non-human use of antibiotics.
The researchers found that 80 percent of the antibiotics used in the US, are consumed in agriculture and aquaculture for the purpose of increasing food production. In the face of the ongoing flood of antibiotics released into the environment — sprayed on fruit trees and fed to livestock, poultry and salmon, among other uses — bacteria has continued to evolve, Hollis writes.
Mounting evidence has shown that resistant pathogens are emerging, resulting in more strains of bacteria immune to available treatments. If left unchecked, this will create a global health crisis, says Hollis. Antibiotic-resistant bacteria will thrive, Hollis adds, reproducing rapidly and spreading in various ways.
“Modern medicine relies on antibiotics to kill off bacterial infections,” explains Hollis. “Without effective antibiotics, any surgery — even minor ones — will become extremely risky.”
Hollis and Ahmed suggest that the predicament could be greatly alleviated by imposing a user fee on the non-human uses of antibiotics, similar to the way logging companies pay stumpage fees and oil companies pay royalties.
While the vast majority of antibiotic is used to increase productivity in agriculture, Hollis believes these applications are of “low value” compared to using antibiotics to people from dying.
“These methods are obviously profitable to the farmers, but that doesn’t mean it’s generating a huge benefit. In fact, the profitability is usually quite marginal,” says Hollis. ”It’s about increasing the efficiency of food so you can reduce the amount of grain you feed the cattle. It’s about giving antibiotics to baby chicks because it reduces the likelihood that they’re going to get sick when you cram them together in unsanitary conditions.”
While banning the use of antibiotics in food production is challenging, establishing a user fee makes good sense, according to Hollis. It would deter low-value use of antibiotics, with higher costs encouraging farmers to improve their animal management methods.
“Resistant bacteria do not respect national borders,” says Hollis, so an international treaty could ideally be imposed, offering a fair chance of attaining international compliance. The US is already attempting to control non-human use of antibiotics, with the FDA recently seeking voluntary limits on the use of antibiotics for animal growth promotion on farms.
Hollis asks: “Is the Canadian government going to take any action to control the use of antibiotics for food production purposes?”