Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Antibiotics for dinner again?!

Tuesday morning’s session “ Industrial Agriculture: Health Threats and Solutions,” jointly organized by the Environment and Food and Nutrition Sections, brought together an impressive group of speakers who synthesized the range of concerns about industrial agriculture and human health, from antibiotic resistance to peak oil.

David Wallinga, of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, discussed the dangers of widespread antibiotic use in animals and the contamination of meat with antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Although the industry doesn’t measure its antibiotic use, researchers have estimated about 20 million to 30 million pounds of antibiotics were fed to livestock in 2001, largely for preventing disease and promoting growth.

“The obvious concern is that the use of these drugs in animals is going to undercut their effectiveness in treating human illnesses,” he said.

John Balbus, of the Environmental Defense Fund, echoed Wallinga’s concerns about antibiotic use in animals, particularly in pigs. Ninety-five percent of the antibiotics used in pigs are similar to human antibiotics, so if we were to see cross-resistance between animals and humans, pigs would be a likely place to see that, he said.

Shifting to energy, it’s no surprise that industrial agriculture uses massive amounts of fuel in pesticides, fertilizers, irrigation, transportation and packaging. Ashley Wennerstrom, a DrPH candidate at the University of Arizona, discussed the challenges ahead as fuel prices rise and supplies fall. This isn’t just an issue for economists or energy policy analysts, this is a public health policy issue as well, she said. The reactive (not-proactive) nature of the market system means we must advocate for increased investments in alternative energy and public transportation, oppose subsidies for corn grown for fuel, and provide incentives for farmers to rotate crops and use natural fertilizer to prevent soil degradation.

Alison Gustafson, a doctoral student at the University of North Carolina, has researched local food environments in North Carolina and their links to diet patterns, obesity and chronic disease.

“A big function of what we eat is what’s available in our communities,” she said.

She has found that the large number of livestock farms in North Carolina hasn’t necessarily translated to local benefits for residents, but collaborations between sectors of the food system (for example, between production and retail distribution) could help improve the situation.

Linda Shak, of the Prevention Institute, detailed her work to link health and sustainable agriculture, which includes a useful Web site that can be used by schools, communities and governments to improve access to healthy food in a sustainable way. To try out this interactive tool, visit the Prevention Institute’s Environmental Nutrition and Activity Community Tool (or ENACT) Web site.

— P.T.

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