How Do We Feed the People?

The short answer is we cheat, and oh by the way, we are making ourselves sick in the process.

Let’s start with this: What weighs more – all the humans on the planet, or all the animals we raise to produce our food, i.e. cattle, pigs, and chicken? If you answered the latter you’d be right; what’s more, the balance keeps shifting in the direction of the animals.

The explanation is twofold. First, the obvious one, the Earth’s population is rapidly increasing. Right now we’re at around 7 billion and estimates are that by 2030 we’ll be at 8.5 billion: that increase is the equivalent of the current U.S. population multiplied by 5. So in order to feed all these new people we will need more food animals.

The second reason is less obvious but actually more of a factor: the rising incomes of the low and middle-income BRICS countries – Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa. As people put money in their wallet their tastes quickly shift from rice to steak – and there’s the rub: the ever-increasing demand by an ever-increasing number of people for protein; i.e. beef, chicken, pork, and fish.

These are some of the points made in a study conducted by researchers at Princeton University and published last month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.

chicken cafoHere’s the rest of what they have to say. To meet this growing demand for food we’ve drastically changed how we make it. Old McDonald had a farm. He’s been replaced by “large-scale intensive farming operations,” or CAFOs, where antibiotics are used routinely to keep confined animals healthy and to speed up their growth.

This is where the cheating comes in. Antibiotic use in this circumstance is the functional equivalent of steroid use in competitive sports. As with steroid use, growth-promoting antibiotics come with a hidden cost: antibiotic resistant disease in livestock and humans. So much so that a UK government study predicts there’ll be more deaths from resistant infections – the so-called “superbugs” — than from cancer, by the year 2050.

In other words, antibiotic use drives disease, and the more we use them the more untreatable disease we will have in society. In a very real sense, we’re actually manufacturing illness. Put another way, we’re eating disease.

Exactly how bad is the trend towards a surge in antibiotic use in our food animals? In a word – Bad. The Princeton study tells us that (1) the global consumption of antibiotics for cattle, chicken, and pigs, will increase from the 63,000 tons used in 2010 to almost 106,000 tons in 2030 – a 67% rise (2) China and the United States are and will continue to be the biggest overall offenders (3) the greatest increase in antibiotic use – a 99% rise – will be in the BRICS countries, and (3) the global increase in trade and transport make an outbreak of antibiotic resistant disease anywhere a problem for everyone everywhere (Remember the great American Ebola freakout of 2014?).

To get a better understanding of the relationship between antibiotic use in food animals and how it affects our health we recommend watching the Frontline piece The Trouble with Antibiotics, that came out last October. It’s top notch stuff. Here’s a preview:

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