The end of a bad idea?

This week, the Ontario Medical Association released a report demanding an end to the practice of feeding antibiotics to farm animals in order to promote growth.

This week, the Ontario Medical Association released a report demanding an end to the practice of feeding antibiotics to farm animals in order to promote growth. The doctors aren’t mincing words on this one: the OMA’s web page calls on government “to address the growing crisis of antibiotic resistance while there is still time.”

The issue is well known: the long-term, low-dose use of antibiotics in livestock operations can lead to drug-resistant diseases that affect the human population, to the point where medicines we rely on to prevent serious, often fatal, illness no longer work.

When the OMA says there’s still time to address this crisis, they don’t mean much time. It’s already the case that “antibiotics are not as effective as they once were because bacteria are adapting to them.” It is already “becoming more common for a child to have repeated strep throat infections, and for these to develop into more serious consequences, like scarlet fever.”

Eighty years ago, scarlet fever was a leading killer of four- to eight-year old children. Sixty years ago, it had faded into history like the Black Death. Or so we thought. Tuberculosis, another great killer from the past, is also back with an all-new antibiotic-resistant strain. The treatment of gonorrhea is reduced to a single antibiotic whose effectiveness is dwindling. In calling for action on this “growing crisis,” the OMA is joining medical associations from all over the world.

Here is a crisis that threatens human health immediately and in the long term, and yet one with a ready solution. According to the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture and Food, the sole purpose of the “intensive, non-therapeutic use of antibiotics in agriculture” is to reduce costs, and “the administration of antibiotics for growth is partially responsible for the low meat prices we enjoy today.” But alternatives exist, including “alternative feeds and feeding strategies” and “strategies to optimize herd or flock health.”

In short, farmers need to do a better job of farming. Instead of taking dangerous shortcuts like using antibiotics to promote growth, governments need to move quickly to put a stop to the abuse of antibiotics, and consumers need to accept the fact that non-toxic meat may cost a little more.

All of this can and must be achieved in the near future. It’s not only a crisis, it’s an opportunity to demonstrate that we’re capable of dealing with a relatively simple problem, to prove to ourselves that we may just be capable of facing a growing array of far less tractable crises as we head into the future.

Another looming crisis in human health, and a far harder one to address, is the accelerating pace of global warming. According to the draft report of a U.S. Federal Advisory Committee on Climate Assessment, “climatic changes have affected and will continue to affect human health, water supply, agriculture, transportation, energy, and many other aspects of society.”

According to the report, even in the unlikely event that governments, corporations, and individuals wake up tomorrow to the seriousness of the threat and take immediate action, sea levels will continue to rise, and “there will be increasing disruptions from extreme heat, drought, and heavy downpours” while “existing health threats will intensify, and new health threats will emerge.”

The report’s abstract lists a host of certain consequences of the changing climate, often offering a range of possibilities, depending on how quickly we act. Sea levels may rise six feet, or they may rise less. The planet’s temperature may rise two degrees or it may rise 10. So the crisis of global warming presents two frightening challenges: coping with the effects of the damage we’ve already done, and reducing the damage we know we’re going to do in the future.

If we can’t manage the relatively simple problem of antibiotic resistance we are in deep trouble when it comes to facing the vast complex juggernaut that is global warming. In a recent conversation with Truthdig columnist Chris Hedges, Canadian anthropologist and author Ronald Wright talked about where our inaction on climate change has led, and is leading.

“When it gets to the point where large parts of the Earth experience crop failure at the same time,” Wright said, “then we will have mass starvation and a breakdown in order. That is what lies ahead if we do not deal with climate change.” And that, he says, could be that. Nothing guarantees our continued survival. Like the mysterious Easter Islanders, we may simply disappear. Evolution could be forced to back up a few hundred thousand years and try something different.

“If we fail in this great experiment, this experiment of apes becoming intelligent enough to take charge of their own destiny,” says Wright, “nature will shrug and say it was fun for a while to let the apes run the laboratory, but in the end it was a bad idea.”

Al Pope won the Ma Murray Award for Best Columnist in B.C./Yukon in 2010 and 2002.

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