World Health Organization Warns of a Post-Antibiotic Era

When I was ten, my life was saved by antibiotics when I had pneumonia and pleurisy simultaneously. So this story has personal resonance for me.

It’s worth noting that 80 percent of the antibiotics used in the United States are used as a routine part of raising animals for meat, dairy, and eggs, on factory farms and other non-organic agricultural operations. That’s where the problem most urgently needs to be addressed. The private sector isn’t doing anything about it, which means it will require regulatory action at the federal level. The sooner the better.

The ‘post-antibiotic’ era is near, according to a report released today by the World Health Organization (WHO). The decreasing effectiveness of antibiotics and other antimicrobial agents is a global problem, and a surveillance system should be established to monitor it, the group says.

There is nothing hopeful in the WHO’s report, which pulls together data from 129 member states to show extensive resistance to antimicrobial agents in every region of the world. Overuse of antibiotics in agriculture — to promote livestock growth — and in hospitals quickly leads to proliferation of drug-resistant bacteria, which then spread via human travel and poor sanitation practices.

“A post-antibiotic era — in which common infections and minor injuries can kill — far from being an apocalyptic fantasy, is instead a very real possibility for the twenty-first century,” writes Keiji Fukuda, WHO assistant director-general for health security, in a foreword to the report.

Perhaps the most worrying trend is the spread of resistance to carbapenems, the ‘antibiotics of last resort’, says Timothy Walsh, a medical microbiologist at Cardiff University, UK, who was an adviser for the report. “That’s taken us by surprise,” he says. “All of us are rather like rabbits in front of the headlights in how quickly this has taken off.”

 

Pesticides and the Collapse of Bee Colonies

The alarming collapse of the bee population in many areas appears to be due to a widely used class of pesticides called neonicotinoids. Should this be allowed to continue, it has the potential to wreak havoc on the world’s food supply, much of which is dependent on bees for pollination. No small thing.

At first, there had been concern that electromagnetic waves from increasingly ubiquitous cell phones might be the cause, or reduced resistance to mites or parasites, research failed to document a strong link. But with neonicotinoids, the evidence is now strong to the point of damning.

From the Harvard School of Public Health:

Two widely used neonicotinoids—a class of insecticide—appear to significantly harm honey bee colonies over the winter, particularly during colder winters, according to a new study from Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH). The study replicated a 2012 finding from the same research group that found a link between low doses of imidacloprid and Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), in which bees abandon their hives over the winter and eventually die. The new study also found that low doses of a second neonicotinoid, clothianidin, had the same negative effect.

Further, although other studies have suggested that CCD-related mortality in honey bee colonies may come from bees’ reduced resistance to mites or parasites as a result of exposure to pesticides, the new study found that bees in the hives exhibiting CCD had almost identical levels of pathogen infestation as a group of control hives, most of which survived the winter. This finding suggests that the neonicotinoids are causing some other kind of biological mechanism in bees that in turn leads to CCD.

Organic Chicken Has as Many Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria as Conventional Chicken

Tom Philpott has a post at Mother Jones today about a Consumer Reports finding that, surprisingly, certified organic (and therefore antibiotic-free) chicken has as many “superbugs” (antibiotic-resistant bacteria) as chicken raised conventionally with antibiotics. The finding is clear but the reasons behind it aren’t at this point.

What got me was that chicken samples labeled “organic” or “no antibiotics” (list of all brands tested here) were just as likely to contain these potentially deadly, drug-defying pathogens. Notably, organic and antibiotic-free chicken both carry substantial premiums over conventional—at my local H-E-B supermarket in Austin, organic boneless chicken breast is fetching $7.97 per pound—vs. $4.99 for no-antibiotic and $1.97 for regular.

My surprise wasn’t based on some romantic notion that organic food is cleaner. Bacteria develop the ability to withstand to antibiotics by being exposed to them regularly. US Department of Agriculture code forbids antibiotics in organic meat production, and the “no antibiotics” label means just that, and is also regulated by the USDA.

Eighty percent of antibiotics used in the United States are given to animals raised for meat, dairy and eggs. Nearly all are given routinely, with the intent of preventing disease in these farmed animals, rather than as treatment for sick animals. The remaining 20 percent are used in human medicine.

Public health officials fear that if antibiotic resistance continues to accelerate at its current trajectory, we may find ourselves in a post-antibiotic age in the near future. If and when this happens, many infectious diseases that were fatal or caused permanently damage before the invention of antibiotics will be much more difficult to treat, as was the case prior to the 1940s.

The routine use of antibiotics in animal agriculture is an area ripe for reexamination.

EPA Backs Off Factory Farm Regulation

Whether it’s a Democratic or a Republican administration, favoring corporate power over the well-being of the public seems to carry the day more often than not. What a disappointment this administration has been on these types of issues.

The Environmental Protection Agency is obliged under the Clean Water Act to monitor America’s waterways and shield them from the toxic runoff from factory farms. But the growth of that industry, and its courtroom tenacity, has far outstripped the E.P.A.’s efforts to restrict runoff from manure lagoons and feedlots.

Last year, the agency meekly withdrew two proposed rules. One would have gathered basic information from all factory farms. The other proposed rule would have expanded the number of such farms required to have a national pollution discharge permit. Fewer than 60 percent do now.

Then, last week, in yet another retreat, the agency announced that promised new regulations governing feedlot discharges nationally would not be forthcoming.

According to the E.P.A.’s own studies, agricultural runoff is the leading cause of impaired water quality. The amount of manure produced by factory farms is staggering. The agency estimates that those operations create between 500 million and 1 billion tons of manure, three times as much waste as humans produce in the United States. The task of keeping those hundreds of millions of tons of animal waste out of rivers, lakes and estuaries is enormous, clearly requiring a strong set of revised regulations for the handling of factory-farm waste, including provisions for tracking waste when it’s been moved offsite.

Right now, the patchwork of regulations — which assume a great deal of self-policing — suits the factory-farm industry all too well. So does the E.P.A.’s inability to gather even the most basic information about those farms.

 

Supreme Court Rules That Human Genes Cannot Be Patented

This may be best Supreme Court decision in recent years. Human genes may not be patented. Those that have patents on genes no longer have them.

I confess to some surprise at this decision. But my main emotion is elation.

The decision was unanimous.

“A naturally occurring DNA segment is a product of nature and not patent eligible merely because it has been isolated,” Justice Clarence Thomas wrote for a unanimous court. But manipulating a gene to create something not found in nature is an invention eligible for patent protection.

The case concerned patents held by Myriad Genetics, a Utah company, on genes that correlate with increased risk of hereditary breast and ovarian cancer.

The central question for the justices in the case, Association for Molecular Pathology v. Myriad Genetics, No. 12-398, was whether isolated genes are “products of nature” that may not be patented or “human-made inventions” eligible for patent protection.

The patents were challenged by scientists and doctors who said their research and ability to help patients had been frustrated.

The court’s ruling will shape the course of scientific research and medical testing, and it may alter the willingness of businesses to invest in the expensive work of isolating and understanding genetic material.

UN Panel Urges Global Move Toward Meat and Dairy-Free Diet

This is from the UN Environmental Programme. It’s a fair reading of the available data, which indicates that changes in two sectors, animal agriculture and the burning of fossil fuel, are the keys to avoiding catastrophic climate change. This report goes public in the week that the world also surpassed the 400 ppm level of CO2.

This is a major health policy issue, ultimately dwarfing those that absorb more of our attention at the moment.

A global shift towards a vegan diet is vital to save the world from hunger, fuel poverty and the worst impacts of climate change, a UN report said today.

As the global population surges towards a predicted 9.1 billion people by 2050,  western tastes for diets rich in meat and dairy products are unsustainable, says the report from United Nations Environment Programme’s (UNEP) international panel of sustainable resource management.

It says: “Impacts from agriculture are expected to increase substantially due to population growth increasing consumption of animal products. Unlike fossil fuels, it is difficult to look for alternatives: people have to eat. A substantial reduction of impacts would only be possible with a substantial worldwide diet change, away from animal products.”

Professor Edgar Hertwich, the lead author of the report, said: “Animal products cause more damage than [producing] construction minerals such as sand or cement, plastics or metals. Biomass and crops for animals are as damaging as [burning] fossil fuels.”

 

Antibiotic-Resistant Germs in Supermarket Meats

One more reason to just stop eating it. Also a clarion call to drastically overhaul the industrial model of animal agriculture that considers antibiotics a normal part of animal feed.

More than half of samples of ground turkey, pork chops and ground beef collected from supermarkets for testing by the federal government contained a bacteria resistant to antibiotics, according to a new report highlighting the findings.

The data, collected in 2011 by the National Antimicrobial Resistance Monitoring System — a joint program of the Food and Drug Administration, the Agriculture Department and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — show a sizable increase in the amount of meat contaminated with antibiotic-resistant forms of bacteria, known as superbugs, like salmonella, E. coli and campylobacter.

Many animals grown for meat are fed diets containing antibiotics to promote growth and reduce costs, as well as to prevent and control illness. Public health officials in the United States and in Europe, however, are warning that the consumption of meat containing antibiotics contributes to resistance in humans. A growing public awareness of the problem has led to increased sales of antibiotic-free meat.

The Agriculture Department has confirmed that almost 80 percent of all antibiotics sold in the United States are used in animal agriculture, and public health authorities around the world increasingly are warning that antibiotic resistance is reaching alarming levels.

Undergraduate Public Health Education Expands

Some good news from the excellent Public Health Newswire:

At Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts, all first-year students participate in a “great problems” seminar focusing on issues such as food sustainability, the world’s water supply or chronic disease. The early public health exposure means a number of those students end up doing public health work in their junior and senior years.

At Kapi’olani Community College in Hawaii, students choose from the service learning “pathways” of health, the environment and elder care as part of their general education curriculum. A recent service project matched Native Hawaiian students with native elders to work on health literacy.

“Their curriculum is just shot through with public health,” Susan Albertine, PhD, vice president at the Association of American Colleges and Universities, told The Nation’s Health. “It’s a beautiful thing.”

Gambling with Our Genetic Future: GMOs and the World Food Supply

This interview with Jeffrey Smith appears in the June 2012 issue of Pathways, a Washington, DC, community quarterly. The web version here includes a list of references at the end which is not included in the print version.

Jeffrey M. Smith is a consumer advocate who has written extensively about genetically modified organisms (GMOs). As executive director of the Institute for Responsible Technology, he advocates against their inclusion in the food supply.

In this interview with Dr. Daniel Redwood, Smith describes the scientific studies that raise red flags about the safety of GMOs; several European nations’ current bans on GMOs in foods and how their regulatory processes differ from the United States; the British scandal in which veteran scientist Arpad Pusztai’s work was suppressed until revealed by a Parliamentary inquiry; court documents revealing that FDA scientists were overruled by a political appointee to allow the first introduction of GMOs into the U.S. food supply in the 1990s; and the revolving door that has allowed a top Monsanto official to rotate back and forth multiple times between corporate and regulatory positions of power in the U.S. federal government.

Smith also explains that as a non-scientist writer and advocate, he follows a policy of having his writing reviewed for accuracy by at least three scientists prior to publication.

Smith’s first book was Seeds of Deception: Exposing Industry and Government Lies about the Safety of the Genetically Engineered Foods You’re Eating. His second, the comprehensively documented Genetic Roulette: The Documented Health Risks of Genetically Engineered Foods, covers research linking GMOs to a wide variety of health risks in humans and animals. In his foreword to Genetic Roulette, former UK Environment Minister Michael Meacher writes, “This is a brilliant book which combines shrewd dissection of the true nature of GM technology, a devastating critique of the health and environmental hazards of GM crops, and scarifying examples of the manipulation of both science and the media by the biotech industry.”

Jeffrey Smith has lectured in 30 countries and has been quoted in The New York Times, Washington Post, BBC World Service, Nature, The Independent, Daily Telegraph, New Scientist, The Times (London), Associated Press, Reuters News Service, LA Times, Time Magazine and Genetic Engineering News. His radio and TV appearances have included BBC, NPR, Fox News, Democracy Now and the Dr. Oz Show. He writes an internationally syndicated column, Spilling the Beans, and has a regular blog on The Huffington Post.

Pulitzer Prize winning ecological poet and essayist Gary Snyder was once asked what he feared most. This was a broad question—his answer could have been Alzheimer’s, starvation, fascism or anything else. His answer was, “Contamination of the gene pool.” You’ve devoted your life to this issue. To begin at the beginning, what is a genetically modified organism and how do these GMOs become part of the food supply?

GMOs are organisms—plant, animal, etc.—where genes from the DNA of one species are forced into the DNA of other species. In our food supply, foods like soybeans and corn have been genetically engineered with bacteria genes, allowing the crop to withstand doses of herbicide, or in the case of corn, to also produce their own toxic pesticide.

They were introduced into our food supply through deception and manipulation. The person in charge of policy at the FDA was Michael Taylor, the former attorney to biotech giant Monsanto, who claimed in the policy of the FDA that the agency was not aware of information showing that these foods were significantly different. Therefore, companies like Monsanto, who had previously told us that PCBs, Agent Orange and DDT were safe, were able to determine whether their GMOs were safe–no safety studies were required. They can introduce a new GMO without having to tell the FDA or consumers.

But documents made public from a lawsuit, Alliance for Biointegrity v. Shalala, revealed that the policy at the FDA was based on a lie. In fact, the overwhelming consensus among the FDA’s own scientists was that genetically modified foods were not only different but dangerous and could create hard-to-detect allergens, toxins, new diseases and nutritional problems. They had urged their superiors to require testing but were ignored.

Michael Taylor then went on to become Monsanto’s Vice President and chief lobbyist.  He is now back at the FDA as the U.S. food safety czar.

Climate Change: Last Chances to Avoid Disaster Fast Approaching

This has far greater implications for long-term population health than most of what we usually call health policy. The Obama Administration’s upcoming decision on the Keystone Pipeline is the central focus, but the issue goes much deeper.

From one of the nation’s top climate scientists, James Hansen of NASA, in today’s New York Times:

If Canada proceeds, and we do nothing, it will be game over for the climate.

Canada’s tar sands, deposits of sand saturated with bitumen, contain twice the amount of carbon dioxide emitted by global oil use in our entire history. If we were to fully exploit this new oil source, and continue to burn our conventional oil, gas and coal supplies, concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere eventually would reach levels higher than in the Pliocene era, more than 2.5 million years ago, when sea level was at least 50 feet higher than it is now. That level of heat-trapping gases would assure that the disintegration of the ice sheets would accelerate out of control. Sea levels would rise and destroy coastal cities. Global temperatures would become intolerable. Twenty to 50 percent of the planet’s species would be driven to extinction. Civilization would be at risk.

That is the long-term outlook. But near-term, things will be bad enough. Over the next several decades, the Western United States and the semi-arid region from North Dakota to Texas will develop semi-permanent drought, with rain, when it does come, occurring in extreme events with heavy flooding. Economic losses would be incalculable. More and more of the Midwest would be a dust bowl. California’s Central Valley could no longer be irrigated. Food prices would rise to unprecedented levels.

If this sounds apocalyptic, it is. This is why we need to reduce emissions dramatically. President Obama has the power not only to deny tar sands oil additional access to Gulf Coast refining, which Canada desires in part for export markets, but also to encourage economic incentives to leave tar sands and other dirty fuels in the ground.

The global warming signal is now louder than the noise of random weather, as I predicted would happen by now in the journal Science in 1981. Extremely hot summers have increased noticeably. We can say with high confidence that the recent heat waves in Texas and Russia, and the one in Europe in 2003, which killed tens of thousands, were not natural events — they were caused by human-induced climate change.