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If We Want Antibiotics to Work, Consumers Have to Put Big Pressure on Factory Farms

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More than 27 percent if all medically important antibiotics sold in the U.S. are used to raise pigs. North Dakota Department of Agriculture

By Christy Spees

On March 1, Denny's stopped purchasing chicken treated with medically important antibiotics for its U.S. restaurants. Many consumers might expect to see such promises at Whole Foods or their local farm-to-table restaurant, but why is a chain like Denny's (i.e., one that is enjoyed more for its assortment of inexpensive breakfast foods than its moral standards) joining the trend to reduce antibiotics in meat?


In fact, Denny's joins a growing group of major fast food and fast casual chains (McDonald's, Wendy's, KFC, Chipotle and others) that have established policies prohibiting the use of medically important antibiotics in chicken. This is not the same as "antibiotic-free" claims, to be clear ("medically important" antibiotics are those used in human medicine; there are other antibiotics only used in animals), but it is a critical change that has been rippling through the food system for the past several years to protect human health. To explain the significance of this trend, a quick history of the problem that companies are trying to address is useful.

According to the World Health Organization, antibiotic resistance is one of the top 10 threats to global public health in 2019. When antibiotic medications are overused or misused, resistant bacteria can spread, causing treatments for common (and often serious) illnesses to become ineffective. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, at least 2 million Americans contract an antibiotic-resistant infection every year and 23,000 will die from it.

The use of antibiotics in animal agriculture is a major part of the problem. More than 70 percent of the medically important antibiotics sold in the U.S. are sold for use in food animals. This is not because cows are particularly susceptible to strep throat; the majority of antibiotics used on animal farms are not used as treatment for diagnosed diseases in animals. Rather, most animals raised for food are raised on factory farms, or Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs). To produce animal products cheaply and on a large scale, animals are packed together, creating crowded, stressful and unsanitary conditions. Such conditions are inherently disease-promoting for animals. To deal with the likelihood of infections and disease associated with poor conditions without actually changing those conditions, antibiotics have become a convenient Band-Aid. As factory farming has become the predominant model for raising animals for food, more farmers have resorted to practices of routinely administering antibiotics (sometimes even delivering drugs to chicks still in the egg) to keep animals "healthy" enough to bring to slaughter. As more antibiotics are used in these conditions, more antibiotic-resistant bacteria are released into the environment.

Pressure from public interest organizations, consumers, scientists, investors and government has led to significant reductions in the use of antibiotics in food animals over the past several years, though much work remains. Consumer demand for meat raised without medically important antibiotics has steadily risen as awareness of the threat of antibiotic resistance has grown. According to Consumer Reports surveys from last year, almost 80 percent of Americans think meat producers should stop giving antibiotics to healthy animals and almost 60 percent of survey respondents said they would be willing to pay more for meat raised without antibiotics. Consumer Reports and five public interest groups have jointly published four editions of their Chain Reaction report and scorecard, which urges fast food chains to respond to changing consumer preferences and reduce the impacts of their meat supply chains on antibiotic resistance.

In line with growing public concern and the rampant growth of antibiotic-resistant superbugs, U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) guidelines, which took effect in 2017, eliminated the use of medically important drugs for the purposes of growth promotion or feed efficiency. Voluntary changes by large meat purchasers are also propelling this downward trend.

The good news is that there is momentum for shifting the industry towards a healthier, more sustainable and less destructive future. The FDA recently reported that from 2015 to 2018, sales of medically important antibiotics for use in farm animals declined by 43 percent. Consumer demand, federal regulatory trends, advocacy group pressure and shareholder action have combined to fuel this progress.

The bad news is that the uphill battle to change the food system gets a bit steeper from here. Much of the progress made so far has come from the chicken industry. While chicken producers have been able to make fairly swift changes to reduce their antibiotics use in recent years, this is not the case for other industries like beef and pork. The supply chains for those animals are more complex. So far, in the fast food industry, which has made so much progress establishing policies to avoid chicken raised with antibiotics, McDonald's is the only major company to set meaningful standards for the use of antibiotics in the beef it purchases.

Ultimately, eliminating antibiotics in the rest of the meat supply chain will require real changes in the way conventional farming works. Furthermore, the problem of antibiotic resistance is only one of many negative consequences of the factory farming system. Factory farms are major contributors to greenhouse gas emissions, air and water pollution and deforestation; and from a moral standpoint, the quality of life for animals raised in factory farming conditions is shockingly poor.

Antibiotics provide a window into the deep problems in the animal agriculture system that produces the majority of our meat. The current model is broken. At the same time, the progress in reducing medically important antibiotics in the chicken industry over just a few years sheds light on the potential for change. When consumers demand more responsibly raised meat, the market will respond.

Power to drive change comes in several forms. Consumers can vote with their dollars every time they purchase food that is safe, nutritious, sustainable and transparent. Purchasing food from companies that are working to support these values will help create a food system which prioritizes health and sustainability. Health and environmental advocacy groups voice concerns on behalf of consumers and communities, helping to drive policy change. Investors in food companies also have the ability to weigh in on the risks of poor company policies through engaging with the companies they own and voting in favor of resolutions requesting healthier, less harmful practices. When all of these advocates work toward a common goal, a better food system seems possible.

Christy Spees works to promote corporate accountability to ensure a safe and sustainable food system for As You Sow.

This article was produced by Earth | Food | Life, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

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By Sue Branford and Thais Borges

Ola Elvestrun, Norway's environment minister, announced Thursday that it is freezing its contributions to the Amazon Fund, and will no longer be transferring €300 million ($33.2 million) to Brazil. In a press release, the Norwegian embassy in Brazil stated:

Given the present circumstances, Norway does not have either the legal or the technical basis for making its annual contribution to the Amazon Fund.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro reacted with sarcasm to Norway's decision, which had been widely expected. After an official event, he commented: "Isn't Norway the country that kills whales at the North Pole? Doesn't it also produce oil? It has no basis for telling us what to do. It should give the money to Angela Merkel [the German Chancellor] to reforest Germany."

According to its website, the Amazon Fund is a "REDD+ mechanism created to raise donations for non-reimbursable investments in efforts to prevent, monitor and combat deforestation, as well as to promote the preservation and sustainable use in the Brazilian Amazon." The bulk of funding comes from Norway and Germany.

The annual transfer of funds from developed world donors to the Amazon Fund depends on a report from the Fund's technical committee. This committee meets after the National Institute of Space Research, which gathers official Amazon deforestation data, publishes its annual report with the definitive figures for deforestation in the previous year.

But this year the Amazon Fund's technical committee, along with its steering committee, COFA, were abolished by the Bolsonaro government on 11 April as part of a sweeping move to dissolve some 600 bodies, most of which had NGO involvement. The Bolsonaro government views NGO work in Brazil as a conspiracy to undermine Brazil's sovereignty.

The Brazilian government then demanded far-reaching changes in the way the fund is managed, as documented in a previous article. As a result, the Amazon Fund's technical committee has been unable to meet; Norway says it therefore cannot continue making donations without a favorable report from the committee.

Archer Daniels Midland soy silos in Mato Grosso along the BR-163 highway, where Amazon rainforest has largely been replaced by soy destined for the EU, UK, China and other international markets.

Thaís Borges.

An Uncertain Future

The Amazon Fund was announced during the 2007 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Bali, during a period when environmentalists were alarmed at the rocketing rate of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon. It was created as a way of encouraging Brazil to continue bringing down the rate of forest conversion to pastures and croplands.

Government agencies, such as IBAMA, Brazil's environmental agency, and NGOs shared Amazon Fund donations. IBAMA used the money primarily to enforce deforestation laws, while the NGOs oversaw projects to support sustainable communities and livelihoods in the Amazon.

There has been some controversy as to whether the Fund has actually achieved its goals: in the three years before the deal, the rate of deforestation fell dramatically but, after money from the Fund started pouring into the Amazon, the rate remained fairly stationary until 2014, when it began to rise once again. But, in general, the international donors have been pleased with the Fund's performance, and until the Bolsonaro government came to office, the program was expected to continue indefinitely.

Norway has been the main donor (94 percent) to the Amazon Fund, followed by Germany (5 percent), and Brazil's state-owned oil company, Petrobrás (1 percent). Over the past 11 years, the Norwegians have made, by far, the biggest contribution: R$3.2 billion ($855 million) out of the total of R$3.4 billion ($903 million).

Up till now the Fund has approved 103 projects, with the dispersal of R$1.8 billion ($478 million). These projects will not be affected by Norway's funding freeze because the donors have already provided the funding and the Brazilian Development Bank is contractually obliged to disburse the money until the end of the projects. But there are another 54 projects, currently being analyzed, whose future is far less secure.

One of the projects left stranded by the dissolution of the Fund's committees is Projeto Frutificar, which should be a three-year project, with a budget of R$29 million ($7.3 million), for the production of açai and cacao by 1,000 small-scale farmers in the states of Amapá and Pará. The project was drawn up by the Brazilian NGO IPAM (Institute of Environmental research in Amazonia).

Paulo Moutinho, an IPAM researcher, told Globo newspaper: "Our program was ready to go when the [Brazilian] government asked for changes in the Fund. It's now stuck in the BNDES. Without funding from Norway, we don't know what will happen to it."

Norway is not the only European nation to be reconsidering the way it funds environmental projects in Brazil. Germany has many environmental projects in the Latin American country, apart from its small contribution to the Amazon Fund, and is deeply concerned about the way the rate of deforestation has been soaring this year.

The German environment ministry told Mongabay that its minister, Svenja Schulze, had decided to put financial support for forest and biodiversity projects in Brazil on hold, with €35 million ($39 million) for various projects now frozen.

The ministry explained why: "The Brazilian government's policy in the Amazon raises doubts whether a consistent reduction in deforestation rates is still being pursued. Only when clarity is restored, can project collaboration be continued."

Bauxite mines in Paragominas, Brazil. The Bolsonaro administration is urging new laws that would allow large-scale mining within Brazil's indigenous reserves.

Hydro / Halvor Molland / Flickr

Alternative Amazon Funding

Although there will certainly be disruption in the short-term as a result of the paralysis in the Amazon Fund, the governors of Brazil's Amazon states, which rely on international funding for their environmental projects, are already scrambling to create alternative channels.

In a press release issued yesterday Helder Barbalho, the governor of Pará, the state with the highest number of projects financed by the Fund, said that he will do all he can to maintain and increase his state partnership with Norway.

Barbalho had announced earlier that his state would be receiving €12.5 million ($11.1 million) to run deforestation monitoring centers in five regions of Pará. Barbalho said: "The state governments' monitoring systems are recording a high level of deforestation in Pará, as in the other Amazon states. The money will be made available to those who want to help [the Pará government reduce deforestation] without this being seen as international intervention."

Amazonas state has funding partnerships with Germany and is negotiating deals with France. "I am talking with countries, mainly European, that are interested in investing in projects in the Amazon," said Amazonas governor Wilson Miranda Lima. "It is important to look at Amazônia, not only from the point of view of conservation, but also — and this is even more important — from the point of view of its citizens. It's impossible to preserve Amazônia if its inhabitants are poor."

Signing of the EU-Mercusor Latin American trading agreement earlier this year. The pact still needs to be ratified.

Council of Hemispheric Affairs

Looming International Difficulties

The Bolsonaro government's perceived reluctance to take effective measures to curb deforestation may in the longer-term lead to a far more serious problem than the paralysis of the Amazon Fund.

In June, the European Union and Mercosur, the South American trade bloc, reached an agreement to create the largest trading bloc in the world. If all goes ahead as planned, the pact would account for a quarter of the world's economy, involving 780 million people, and remove import tariffs on 90 percent of the goods traded between the two blocs. The Brazilian government has predicted that the deal will lead to an increase of almost $100 billion in Brazilian exports, particularly agricultural products, by 2035.

But the huge surge this year in Amazon deforestation is leading some European countries to think twice about ratifying the deal. In an interview with Mongabay, the German environment ministry made it very clear that Germany is very worried about events in the Amazon: "We are deeply concerned given the pace of destruction in Brazil … The Amazon Forest is vital for the atmospheric circulation and considered as one of the tipping points of the climate system."

The ministry stated that, for the trade deal to go ahead, Brazil must carry out its commitment under the Paris Climate agreement to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 43 percent below the 2005 level by 2030. The German environment ministry said: If the trade deal is to go ahead, "It is necessary that Brazil is effectively implementing its climate change objectives adopted under the [Paris] Agreement. It is precisely this commitment that is expressly confirmed in the text of the EU-Mercosur Free Trade Agreement."

Blairo Maggi, Brazil agriculture minister under the Temer administration, and a major shareholder in Amaggi, the largest Brazilian-owned commodities trading company, has said very little in public since Bolsonaro came to power; he's been "in a voluntary retreat," as he puts it. But Maggi is so concerned about the damage Bolsonaro's off the cuff remarks and policies are doing to international relationships he decided to speak out earlier this week.

Former Brazil Agriculture Minister Blairo Maggi, who has broken a self-imposed silence to criticize the Bolsonaro government, saying that its rhetoric and policies could threaten Brazil's international commodities trade.

Senado Federal / Visualhunt / CC BY

Maggi, a ruralista who strongly supports agribusiness, told the newspaper, Valor Econômico, that, even if the European Union doesn't get to the point of tearing up a deal that has taken 20 years to negotiate, there could be long delays. "These environmental confusions could create a situation in which the EU says that Brazil isn't sticking to the rules." Maggi speculated. "France doesn't want the deal and perhaps it is taking advantage of the situation to tear it up. Or the deal could take much longer to ratify — three, five years."

Such a delay could have severe repercussions for Brazil's struggling economy which relies heavily on its commodities trade with the EU. Analysists say that Bolsonaro's fears over such an outcome could be one reason for his recently announced October meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, another key trading partner.

Maggi is worried about another, even more alarming, potential consequence of Bolsonaro's failure to stem illegal deforestation — Brazil could be hit by a boycott by its foreign customers. "I don't buy this idea that the world needs Brazil … We are only a player and, worse still, replaceable." Maggi warns, "As an exporter, I'm telling you: things are getting very difficult. Brazil has been saying for years that it is possible to produce and preserve, but with this [Bolsonaro administration] rhetoric, we are going back to square one … We could find markets closed to us."

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