According to today’s papers, Chinese experts have found a gene that makes it possible for resistance to antibiotics to spread between different kinds of bacteria; the gene (MRC-1) enables a range of common bacteria to develop resistance to the last fully functional class of antibiotics, called polymyxins. This isn’t the first time that bacteria have developed resistance to polymyxins, apparently – the difference now, though, is that the mutation has occurred in such a way as to make it very easily transferable between species.
Professor Timothy Walsh, who collaborated on the study, has said: “All the key players are now in place to make the post-antibiotic world a reality. If MRC-1 becomes global, which is a case of when not if, and the gene aligns itself with other antibiotic resistance genes, which is inevitable, then we will have very likely reached the start of the post-antibiotic era.” It’s hard not to be terrified. As the BBC puts it, a world without antibiotics “could plunge medicine back into the dark ages.”
As I was trying to wrap my head around the enormity of this earlier, it struck me that the most frustrating aspect of these reports is the link to agriculture. In this case, the gene was discovered during a routine inspection of pig meat destined for market. It was then identified in a pig living on an intensive pig farm in Shanghai, and has since been found in 166 out of 804 animals tested across a variety of provinces in China. There are even suggestions that it has already spread to Laos and Malaysia. Experts believe that the resistance actually began in animals just like this, when the antibiotic was overused in farming – this link isn’t just evidence of the spread.
I was vaguely aware of the controversy surrounding the use of antibiotics in farming, but I certainly didn’t understand either the detail or the scale of the issue. There have, it seems, been campaigns for some time to try force the farming industry to use different antibiotics to those used by humans – although so far they seem to have been unsuccessful. In 2014, for example, following the WHO’s finding that “Antibiotic resistance–when bacteria change so antibiotics no longer work in people who need them to treat infections–is now a major threat to public health”, vets and MPs urged the government and drugs companies to develop antibiotics specifically for animals. Today’s reports show just how frightening it can be when calls like that are ignored. China is one of the world’s largest users of colistin in agriculture – colistin being the antibiotic the bacteria have become resistant to – but this is very much an international problem. Europe still uses colistin widely in its agriculture – according to the Soil Association, 45% of all antibiotics used in the UK are used in farming – and although it is regulated in the EU, there are parts of the world where there is no regulation, or where it simply isn’t enforced.
The antibiotics, as I understand it, are added to the animals’ food and water in order to ward of illness and to boost growth. According to EU law, the animals don’t actually need to be ill to be treated – the antibiotics can simply be used as a preventative measure. Farmers’ unions have argued that the use is absolutely necessary to sustain industrial scale farming – and that without antibiotics, farms would have to raise their hygiene standards to be better than hospitals in order to enable enough animals to survive. Opponents to the practice, however, insist that this is leading us ever closer to a post-antibiotic era.
Although this is obviously a very different issue to climate change, there are clear similarities. Industrial scale agriculture is a major contributor to the damage we are doing to the natural world. Huge swathes of forest are cleared to make way for agriculture, bulldozing through carbon sequestration and threatening the long-term health of the soil; the gases produced by the feeding, digestion and transportation of farm animals are together one of the most significant contributors to greenhouse gas emissions; leaked fertilisers pollute sea and river water, killing wildlife and de-oxygenating the water; and extraordinary quantities of water are needed to keep operations like this running. It is, ultimately, unsustainable.
Like the antibiotics crisis, this is very much an issue of scale: the bottom line is that we consume huge amounts of meat. According to Greenpeace, “if all wild terrestrial mammals climbed on the biomass scale together, the worlds cattle would still outweigh them by 16 times.” That’s barely comprehensible – which is perhaps part of the problem. Statistics are like that are incredibly alarming for a moment, but the reality is that we still head to the supermarket after work to find shelves fully stocked with polythene-wrapped meat. It’s difficult to equate the sausages in your basket with an antibiotic apocalypse, or the beef mince with devastating deforestation. When you start to look at these problems in the round, though, the need to find a solution seems blindingly obvious.
The thing I find particularly humbling about campaigns regarding meat consumption is that we are not even being asked to make huge changes to our lives. Campaigns like “Take Extinction Off Your Plate” ask you to try just having one meat-free night a week. Just one. “If every American eliminated meat just one night a week, the emissions savings would be like taking 30 million to 40 million cars off the road for a year.” Personal health aside – and as we’ve all been told recently, there are apparently many benefits to reducing meat consumption – this is such a small sacrifice to make to address these fundamental crises. I’m not a vegetarian and have no intention of becoming one, but surely I can have pasta a couple of nights a week without losing the will to live. And if I thought the next bout of cystitis might kill me, I think I’d be OK with passing on a burger or two. It seems so basic – if there was less demand for meat, farmers surely wouldn’t be under such pressure to pump their livestock full of the kinds of antibiotics which should be preserved for human medicine, and we could begin to address the catastrophic damage this is doing to the environment. Two birds, one stone – and I can still have the occasional steak.
I’ve elided two issues here, and obviously our diets alone can’t solve the world’s problems. One would hope that this discovery in China will lead to widespread shift in industry practice and tighter regulation of the use of antibiotics, and millions of us will be following the Climate Change Conference in Paris in a couple of weeks, willing our politicians to start setting a programme for change. But there has to be an element of personal responsibility here too, and global education. I’m as guilty of this as anyone, but we must stop viewing the resources we depend on as unlimited and unassailable. Water isn’t limitless; soil can’t regenerate indefinitely; our environment can only withstand a limited increase in temperature; and the medicines we have relied on so heavily for less than a century are no longer invincible.