The use of antibiotics is banned in organic, but is still common in conventional animal rearing. Using antibiotics in agricultural settings can add to the development of antibiotic resistant strains of bacteria that can be passed to humans*. Antibiotic resistance has been described as one of the most pressing human health concerns today, and contributes to thousands of deaths each year. Antibiotic resistance isn’t the only concern with exposure to antibiotics. Many people have allergic reactions ranging from minor to acute when exposed to some classes of antibiotics (e.g. penicillin and sulfonamides). While the use of antibiotics in conventional agricultural practices has been implicated as an important contributor to the growing crises of antibiotic resistance and human exposure to antibiotics, research also demonstrates that organic farming systems can be part of the solution because they do not use them.
The rise of antibiotic resistant bacteria
The development of dangerous antibiotic-resistant bacteria has been propelled by the over-use of antibiotics for both medical and non-medical purposes. When antibiotics are used to treat diseases, the target bacteria can develop a tolerance or resistance to those antibiotics over time, making them difficult or impossible to kill. Long-term and/or frequent use of antibiotics, even at low doses, has caused many types of bacteria to develop resistance, rendering several medically important antibiotics ineffective at combating infection. The World Health Organization has dubbed antibiotic resistance as “one of the biggest threats to global health, food security and development today.”
Why is antibiotic use in agriculture such a big deal?
The strains of antibiotic-resistant microbes that originate in agricultural settings can be dangerous, and even deadly to humans, because they render our primary defense against many bacterial diseases useless. These antibiotic-resistant diseases can be spread to humans through the food supply and the environment. This means that if you get food poisoning from bacteria such as E. coli or Salmonella, antibiotics might not be able to kill the bacteria.
Beyond the development of antibiotic resistance, antibiotic use on farms can have negative effects on the environment. Antibiotics can enter the environment from non-organic animal operations through dust from treated feed, manure and spills from manure lagoons, and water runoff from livestock operations—which impact aquatic organisms and cause occupational exposure to farmers and farmworkers. Antibiotics that make their way into wastewater from livestock operations are extremely difficult to remove. When wastewater mixes with freshwater via runoff or direct contamination, antibiotic residues can be absorbed by aquatic organisms including fish. Antibiotic-contaminated fish has been shown to be a major cause of human exposure to antibiotics in some communities.
Organic meat production reduces the risk of human exposure to antibiotic residues and antibiotic resistant bacteria
The use of antibiotics is prohibited in organic production of both animals and the feed they eat. While the use of antibiotics in conventional agricultural practices has been implicated as an important contributor to this growing crisis, research also demonstrates that organic production, which does not use antibiotics, can be an important part of the solution.
*While the use of antibiotics in agriculture is one of the major contributors to antibiotic resistance it is not alone. Other factors that contribute to antibiotic resistance are the over-prescription of antibiotics, patients not finishing an entire antibiotic course, poor infection control in health care settings, and poor hygiene and sanitation.