Bug Out

An Interview with Laurie Garrett

We're not used to thinking about this anymore. We're not used to imagining how dangerous it is, and pulling out a bottle of Mercurochrome and another bottle of iodine every time one of the kids gets a scratch. We're not accustomed to thinking when somebody starts coughing, "Maybe it's not just a cold. Maybe there's pneumococcus in there. And if there is maybe we have to come up with something radical to do with you, like isolate you from the rest of the household -- because antibiotics don't work anymore." This is what we're facing. It won't be a pandemic. It will be a steady erosion in the toolkit of fighting diseases with more and more bodies mounting up. This is in fact already happening.

OR: Do you see the possibility of a full-scale return to the pre-antibiotic era?

Garrett: In some cases we're already there. If you get a Clostridium difficile infection right now and it has one of these plasmids in it, the standard therapy is to take the excrement of a healthy person and do what's called a fecal transplant: transplanting feces from a healthy individual into you so that your microbiome will alter and you will have beneficial bacteria that will fight off the Clostridium difficile bacteria because antibiotics won't work against it anymore.

OR: What can we do to stop this, and are any high-level groups undertaking those efforts?

Garrett: The number-one thing we need to do is completely ban the use of antibiotics as growth promoters. The industry is screaming and yelling because they're so hooked on it. It's already in the feed, commercial producers have already mixed it in for them, and the animals do -- depending on what kind of animal you're looking at, whether it's aquaculture salmon or it's turkeys for Thanksgiving -- get incrementally larger as a result of being treated every single day with antibiotics. We don't even know why this happens, but when all this started back in the 1950's it was simply an observation that paid out big, and a few key companies went crazy. The profits were huge.

You could literally now raise animals without having them ever go out and forage for food, and they would be fat and go to the market. So now all of a sudden you could have giant industrial pig farms where a pig never walks more than 15 inches in any direction in its entire lifetime. You could have industrial-scale warehouse chicken rearing, where the chicken never sees the sun. These were all possible because the feed bulked the animals up so much and that made mass-scale agricultural production cheap and possible and limited the real estate expense of raising animals. You can go down a huge list of pluses for the industry. But it has to be banned, and the industry has to rethink what it's doing. I say “the industry,” but we're talking hundreds of different industries that are involved.

By the way, adding these growth promoters now is very expensive. The increment of added size for the animals in many cases is less than three percent of total animal weight. And so it's becoming less and less financially wise, and it certainly is less and less wise for the health of the planet and of human beings.

OR: Is there regulatory or legislative pushback against this?

Garrett: Yes, everywhere. It's a huge thing, it's a giant confrontation. This has been going on for a while. The FDA under Obama initiated a whole set of moves aimed at phasing out the use of growth promoters in the industry. USDA traditionally defends the agricultural industry, and FDA traditionally is about the safety of pharmaceuticals, and they often come to blows on this with USDA saying, "What right do you have to say what our farmers do? You're a drug regulator." And the FDA's saying, "Yes, but your farmers are using drugs." And the USDA says back, "No, no, they're not drugs, they're growth promoters." This has been an ongoing dispute for a couple of decades. They reached a point where there was hope, at least in the United States, that limitations would indeed go in place. But then Obama went out and we have a new administration and we haven't heard a peep from anybody in either the FDA or the USDA about what is likely to transpire on this front under the Trump administration.

Overseas we've seen some remarkable things. The Dutch and the Swedes in particular banned almost all growth promoters long ago. They have very vibrant livestock industries. In some of their animals, the yield rates are even higher than those seen in, say, France where they use a ton of this stuff. They have far less drug-resistant human infection, far lower rates of death due to bacterial infection in their hospitals. Across the board they've seen benefit with no real economic hardship to their farmers. They have pushed hard, the Swedes and the Dutch, all throughout the E.U. to try and get a Europe-wide law. Dame Sally Davies, the former Minister of Health under Tony Blair in the U.K., has led a powerful initiative in the U.K. to try and ban a lot of agricultural uses.

Agricultural uses now also involve the applications to plants and to seeds. So you could acquire drug-resistant bacteria from your next pile of nuts or strawberries. It's not just chickens anymore. The British government under David Cameron had been leading an initiative globally to stem the tide of agricultural use and had brought it to the Security Council and the General Assembly. Last September the United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution to combat antibiotic resistance, antimicrobial resistance, and called for a phase-out over the next 15 years of all agricultural uses other than direct veterinary treatment. The problem is that Cameron went out of power, Brexit passed, the Brits became less of a force behind all of this, and nothing has really been put in place in the U.N. system that represents any way of really regulating any of it. So at the moment it's all good intentions and aspirations -- but not much else.