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Antibiotics and Animal Agriculture

Imagine a world void of medicine.  Clearly, it is a good thing that we have medicine.  Advances within the pharmaceutical industry have eased pain and have saved an innumerable number of lives throughout history.  However, despite the apparent praiseworthiness, the industry ranks alongside the tobacco and arms industries as the most unpopular amongst people.  In fact, according to Google, if one searches ‘drug companies are’, the most common endings to the search are: ‘evil’, ‘allowed to be monopolists,’ ‘killing us’ and ‘corrupt’.

Clearly, the health industry is not held in high regard by some people.  Perhaps this is because the industry is so vast and powerful.  The pharmaceutical industry is a $1 trillion a year industry.  Existing within our capitalist world, the profit incentive runs through the medical industry no differently to how it runs through any other industry.  Pharmaceuticals are profit motivated.  The results of this are that drug companies are lead by the market to target the consumers with the most money as opposed to targeting consumers in the most need of healthcare.  Currently, if a company creates a new drug, the company can patent the drug for 20 years, stopping others creating the drug or replicating it without the innovators permission.  This means the innovator can sell the drug at a profit maximising price.  Thus, the poor and those in need must wait for the drug to cease being protected by the patent in order to affordably access the needed drugs.

I shall briefly highlight four major implications of this system.  First, as is highlighted through the infamous 10/90 gap.  Currently, only 10% of global healthcare resources are spent on developing countries where 90% of preventable diseases happen.  So obviously, this means, 90% of resources are spent on developed countries where 10% of preventable diseases happen.  Second, being focused on profit paradoxically leads to a wasteful and inefficient pharmaceutical industry.  Money has to be spent lobbying, patenting and on advertising.  In the USA, an astonishing $2 billion a year is spent on advertising within the pharmaceutical industry.  A third implication of the current system is that, developing countries are forced to develop counterfeit drugs.  Up to 30% of drugs in developing countries are counterfeit.  Counterfeit drugs don’t have the same quality guaranteed and can in fact endanger a patients health.  The fourth implication, that lots of medical resources are diverted to livestock, shall be discussed in more detail below.

The pharmaceutical industry and the animal agriculture industry are deeply interconnected.  The animal agriculture industry is also vast and so can easily afford medicine.   Animal agriculture relies on an enormous amount of medicine from pharmaceutical companies, particularly antibiotics.  In the UK just under 50% of all antibiotics consumed are used on livestock.  This shocking figure is actually low in comparison with the USA where 80% of all antibiotics are used on livestock.  Such statistics are astounding from a medical point of view: these companies are creating medicine solely for animals whilst there are people in desperate need.  From an animal welfare perspective, these figures come as no surprise given the wretched living conditions of most livestock in the two countries.  Most pigs and chickens in the UK live in small spaces with many other animals, on their own faeces.  Such conditions mean that infection is inevitable and it spreads quickly.  Because infection is so inevitable antibiotics are not just used as a response to illnesses but are also used as a preventative measure.  In the UK pigs and poultry spend approximately 20% of their short lives on antibiotics mostly as a preventative measure.

Additionally, giving antibiotics to cattle also increases the carbon emissions of each cow.  An unintended side effect of giving antibiotics to cattle is that the methane level in cattle dung increases.  This is possible because the drugs alter the “interactions between methanogenic archaea and bacteria in rumen and dung environments”.

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By Ian Harper

If you're an egalitarian, how come you eat meat?