Animal Antibiotic Sales Finally Drop, But Much Work Remains
By Avinash Kar and Eili Klein
The world's leading authorities on public health—from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to the World Health Organization (WHO)—have been warning us loud and clear: we must stop taking life-saving antibiotics for granted or else they will continue to fail us when sick people and animals need them. A new report from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) shows that consumer demand for better practices might finally be having an effect.
In 2015, more than 75 percent of U.S. sales of antibiotics important to human medicine were sold for use on livestock, not for the treatment of sick people. Sales of those drugs increased 26 percent from 2009 to 2015. Often, these drugs are not used to treat sick animals, but are distributed en masse to animals, a practice closely linked to use of antibiotics to promote faster growth and compensate for stressful and unsanitary living conditions on industrial farms.
For the first time in many years, livestock sales of antibiotics important to human medicine have dropped—down 14 percent from 2015 to 2016 according to new data released today by the FDA.
These developments are encouraging, showing that meat can be produced with fewer antibiotics in the U.S. But more work remains if we are to make a real dent in the problem. Though an improvement, the 2016 sales figures remain significantly above 2009 levels.
This welcome news follows a series of food industry commitments to reduce antibiotic use in chicken production, which started with an announcement by Perdue Foods in the fall of 2014. Since then fourteen of the top 25 U.S. restaurant chains (and approximately 50 percent of the chicken industry) have made some level of commitment to curb unnecessary antibiotics used in chicken—following increasing demand from customers and advocacy and research from groups like ours. (Note that while an FDA ban on the use of medically important antibiotics for growth promotion went into effect earlier this year, the most recent data precedes the ban).
But further change can't come soon enough. Each year in the U.S., at least 2 million people become sick and at least 23,000 people die from antibiotic-resistant infections. This crisis is fueled by the overuse of these drugs when they are not needed to treat sick people or animals. It threatens the health of every single one of us by making once manageable infections much harder or even impossible to treat. It also means that procedures we have come to rely upon—such as joint replacements, transplants, caesarian sections, or dialysis—may soon become untenable, due to the elevated risk of untreatable infection.
A. FDA, Center for Veterinary Medicine, FDA Annual Summary Reports on Antimicrobials Sold or Distributed for Use in Food-Producing Animals. B. Center for Disease Dynamics, Economic & Policy, IQVIA MIDAS. * Data on human use in 2016 is not yet available
Unfortunately, federal policy to date has fallen short in addressing the problem. While FDA finally enacted a ban on the sales of medically important antibiotics for growth promotion in January 2017, the regulations allow these drugs to continue to be used on animals that are not sick to compensate for the crowded, unsanitary, or stressful conditions found on many livestock operations, under the guise of "disease prevention." As a result, representatives of the animal drug industry have estimated that the ban on growth promotion affects no more than 10-15 percent of antibiotic use in the livestock sector. The WHO recently released recommendations that medically important antibiotics should not be used for disease prevention in healthy animals—and the FDA should heed that call and close this loophole.
In the meantime, industry, states, cities and consumers must keep leading the way. The chicken industry has reached a tipping point. And giants of the industry—from Tyson and Perdue on the producer side, to McDonald's and Subway on the restaurant side—are responding to consumer demand and helping lead the way. But we need to see the same kind of action in the pork and beef industries, which lag far behind. FDA's reported estimates of the breakdown of the sales of these drugs by animal species show beef and pork accounting for about 43 percent and 37 percent of the total, respectively, whereas chicken only accounts for 6 percent. Similarly, based on the 2016 FDA estimates and USDA production data, the beef industry used 314 milligrams of medically important antibiotics per kilogram of meat produced (mg/kg), the pork industry 273 mg/kg and chicken 27 mg/kg.
States and cities too can help fill the gaps in federal action. States can follow the lead of California and Maryland, which have fully banned the routine use of antibiotics in healthy livestock and poultry. Cities, meanwhile, can look to San Francisco's new antibiotics use disclosure ordinance, which requires large grocery chains to report the antibiotic use associated with the raw meat and poultry sold in their stores, empowering customers to make informed decisions on the meat they buy.
The growing spread of drug-resistant bacteria and infections affects anyone who may ever need antibiotics—or cares about someone who might. That's all of us. And so action is needed from all of us—consumers, companies, states, cities and especially FDA—to extend this progress and help save these miracle drugs before it's too late.
Dr. David Wallinga and Abby Zlotnick of NRDC contributed to this blog.
Eili Klein has been associated with the Center for Disease Dynamics, Economics & Policy since its founding and is currently a fellow. Dr. Klein is a mathematical ecologist and epidemiologist whose research focuses on the role of behavior in the spread of infectious diseases.
This blog provides general information, not legal advice. If you need legal help, please consult a lawyer in your state.
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By Emily Grubert
Natural gas is a versatile fossil fuel that accounts for about a third of U.S. energy use. Although it produces fewer greenhouse gas emissions and other pollutants than coal or oil, natural gas is a major contributor to climate change, an urgent global problem. Reducing emissions from the natural gas system is especially challenging because natural gas is used roughly equally for electricity, heating, and industrial applications.
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What RNG Is and Why it Matters<p>Most equipment that uses energy can only use a single kind of fuel, but the fuel might come from different resources. For example, you can't charge your computer with gasoline, but it can run on electricity generated from coal, natural gas or solar power.</p><p>Natural gas is almost pure methane, <a href="https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/natural-gas/" target="_blank">currently sourced</a> from raw, fossil natural gas produced from <a href="https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/natural-gas/where-our-natural-gas-comes-from.php" target="_blank">deposits deep underground</a>. But methane could come from renewable resources, too.</p><p><span></span>Two main methane sources could be used to make RNG. First is <a href="https://www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/inventory-us-greenhouse-gas-emissions-and-sinks" target="_blank">biogenic methane</a>, produced by bacteria that digest organic materials in manure, landfills and wastewater. Wastewater treatment plants, landfills and dairy farms have captured and used biogenic methane as an energy resource for <a href="http://emilygrubert.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/eia_860_2017_map.html" target="_blank">decades</a>, in a form usually called <a href="https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/biomass/landfill-gas-and-biogas.php" target="_blank">biogas</a>.</p><p>Some biogenic methane is generated naturally when organic materials break down without oxygen. Burning it for energy can be beneficial for the climate if doing so prevents methane from escaping to the atmosphere.</p>
Renewable Isn’t Always Sustainable<p>If RNG could be a renewable replacement for fossil natural gas, why not move ahead? Consumers have shown that they are <a href="https://www.nrel.gov/analysis/green-power.html" target="_blank">willing to buy renewable electricity</a>, so we might expect similar enthusiasm for RNG.</p><p>The key issue is that methane isn't just a fuel – it's also a <a href="https://www.eia.gov/environment/emissions/ghg_report/ghg_overview.php" target="_blank">potent greenhouse gas</a> that contributes to climate change. Any methane that is manufactured intentionally, whether from biogenic or other sources, will contribute to climate change if it enters the atmosphere.</p><p>And <a href="http://doi.org/10.1126/science.aar7204" target="_blank">releases</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.wasman.2019.07.029" target="_blank">will happen</a>, from newly built production systems and <a href="https://theconversation.com/why-methane-emissions-matter-to-climate-change-5-questions-answered-122684" target="_blank">existing, leaky transportation and user infrastructure</a>. For example, the moment you smell gas before the pilot light on a stove lights the ring? That's methane leakage, and it contributes to climate change.</p><p>To be clear, RNG is almost certainly better for the climate than fossil natural gas because byproducts of burning RNG won't contribute to climate change. But doing somewhat better than existing systems is no longer enough to respond to the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/nclimate2923" target="_blank">urgency</a> of climate change. The world's <a href="https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/chapter/spm/" target="_blank">primary international body on climate change</a> suggests we need to decarbonize by 2030 to mitigate the worst effects of climate change.</p>
Scant Climate Benefits<p><a href="https://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1748-9326/ab9335/meta" target="_blank">My recent research</a> suggests that for a system large enough to displace a lot of fossil natural gas, RNG is probably not as good for the climate as <a href="https://investor.southerncompany.com/information-for-investors/latest-news/latest-news-releases/press-release-details/2020/Southern-Company-Gas-grows-leadership-team-to-focus-on-climate-action-innovation-and-renewable-natural-gas-strategy/default.aspx" target="_blank">is publicly claimed</a>. Although RNG has lower climate impact than its fossil counterpart, likely high demand and methane leakage mean that it probably will contribute to climate change. In contrast, renewable sources such as wind and solar energy do not <a href="https://www.eia.gov/environment/emissions/carbon/" target="_blank">emit climate pollution directly</a>.</p><p>What's more, creating a large RNG system would require building mostly new production infrastructure, since RNG comes from different sources than fossil natural gas. Such investments are both long-term commitments and opportunity costs. They would devote money, political will and infrastructure investments to RNG instead of alternatives that could achieve a zero greenhouse gas emission goal.</p><p>When climate change first <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/1988/06/24/us/global-warming-has-begun-expert-tells-senate.html" target="_blank">broke into the political conversation</a> in the late 1980s, investing in long-lived systems with low but non-zero greenhouse gas emissions was still compatible with aggressive climate goals. Now, zero greenhouse gas emissions is the target, and my research suggests that large deployments of RNG likely won't meet that goal.</p>
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By Charli Shield
When an elephant dies in the wild, it's not uncommon to later find its bones scattered throughout the surrounding landscape.
Elephant Burial Grounds<p>Highly social creatures that form deep familial bonds, elephants have long been observed gathering at the site where a peer or family member has died — often spending hours, even days, quietly investigating the bodies or the bones of other dead elephants.</p><p>Although the popular idea that dying elephants are instinctively drawn to special communal graves — so-called "elephant graveyards" — is a myth, their tendency to go out of their way to visit the bones and tusks of the deceased isn't unlike human rituals at graveyards, says animal psychologist Karen McComb.</p><p>"They spend a lot of time touching and smelling skulls and ivory, placing the soles of their feet gently on top of them, and also lifting them up with their trunks," McComb, who's been studying African elephants for 25 years in Kenya's Amboseli National Park, told DW.</p><p>The most striking part of watching an elephant experience loss, Poole recalls, is the quietude. She still remembers one of the first elephant deaths she witnessed; a mother who birthed a stillborn calf. That elephant stayed with its baby for two days, trying to lift it and defending it from vultures and hyenas.</p><p>"I was so struck by the expression on her face and her body. She looked so dejected. It was really like, 'Oh God, these animals grieve…'. It was just so different," Poole told DW. </p>
Witnessing Emotions in Animals<p>Not all scientists are comfortable concluding that elephants grieve. Among the more than 30 reports of elephant reactions to death that Wittemyer co-reviewed in <a href="https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10329-019-00766-5" target="_blank">a study published in November 2019</a> were accounts of "enormous variation and nuance" he says. "It can be incredibly involved and intricate for extended periods or can be relatively cursory checks."</p><p>In Wittemyer's own experience, it can be difficult not to attribute some kind of emotional experience to the more involved interactions between elephants and their dead.</p><p>He shares the story of an "extraordinary event" involving the death of a 55 year-old matriarch in Kenya in a protected area that happened to be near his place of work. She was visited by multiple unrelated families while she was dying, including another matriarch that exerted such enormous effort attempting to lift her to her feet that she broke her tusk, which Wittemyer says, is "like breaking a tooth." </p><p><span></span>"It was a remarkable example of this heightened emotional state, it was very clearly a very stressful interaction," he says.</p>
A Different Sensory World<p>One factor that limits our ability to fully grasp the way elephants process and respond to loss is our markedly different sensory experiences of the world.</p><p>An elephant's world is fundamentally olfactory — based on smell. Ours is visual. Previous <a href="https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25053675/" target="_blank">research</a> has shown elephants possess the most scent receptors of any mammal, and can <a href="https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/17949977/" target="_blank">use smell</a> to discern the difference between different human tribes from the same local area.</p><p>That could explain why elephants exhibit such interest in sniffing the bones and tusks of others, as a <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1617198/" target="_blank">2005 study</a> from McCombs highlighted. When presented with the skulls and ivory of long-dead elephants and those from other large herbivores, including rhino and buffalo, McCombs and her team found elephants approached and were specifically attracted to the remains of their own species. </p><p>Without access to the smells an elephant picks up on, Wittemyer says "an enormous amount of stuff" could be missed by humans when studying these behaviors.</p>
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