The current swine flu outbreak highlights how our food system is making us ill. Our best antibiotics are losing their effectiveness, and we are creating super-microbes on our factory farms. Antibiotics have saved countless lives, but recently antibiotic-resistant infections are on the rise. Microbes have been on the planet a lot longer than we have, can evolve a lot more quickly than we can, and have begun to overcome our best defenses. Currently more than 2 million Americans are infected each year by resistant germs, and 14,000 die as a result, the World Health Organization reports.
In an effort to produce cheap meat, factory farming has caused more and more animals to be crammed into smaller and smaller spaces, and those animals are fed antibiotics to prevent infections. When antibiotics are given to living creatures, their systems only can use about 5 percent. The remaining 95 percent is excreted into the environment. Snippets of antibiotic DNA wind up in soil microbes and other bacteria because these tiny creatures "swap" genes, constantly exchanging genetic information and evolving.
One study found antibiotic-laced DNA in all water sources tested, from effluent ponds on factory dairy farms to wastewater recycling plants to drinking-water treatment plants and even wild river sediments. Amy Pruden, one of the study's researchers, found that the DNA that helps make germs resistant to antibiotics was hundreds to thousands of times more prevalent in water affected by people or factory farms but was even present in pristine water sources.
A 2001 study by University of Illinois microbiologist Roderick Mackie documented antibiotic-resistant genes in groundwater downstream from pig farms and also in local soil organisms that normally do not contain them. His research found that tainted DNA was in bodies, underfoot in the soil, and in the water around conventional feedlots. Mackie noted that soil bacteria around antibiotic-using farms carried 100 to 1,000 times more resistance genes than the same soil bacteria around organic farms.
Wastewater lagoons attract wildlife, such as migratory geese and ducks, that carry strains of bird flu. When wildlife adds microbes, it creates an unnatural combination of resistant bacteria. Worse, feedlots often use the wastewater lagoons to irrigate crops. A University of Kansas environmental engineer noticed a dramatic spike in antibiotic-resistant genes happening on one Kansas feedlot. He discovered that new calves were given "shock doses" of antibiotics, which they promptly excreted into the lagoons. That effluent was pumped to the fields to fertilize the cattle feed. They were spraying the crops with highly resistant bacteria from the lagoon and then feeding it back to the cattle, which people later ate.
Conservation medicine has been warning us for years about the potential for an outbreak. Doctors estimate that 75 percent of human illness—such as when people get bird flu, Lyme disease, West Nile virus, Legionnaires' disease and so on—originates with animals. Preventing and treating outbreaks through conservation medicine involves treating the root environmental problems—such as our destroying the habitats of deer, which brings them (and ticks carrying Lyme disease) closer to us.
A study of the mouths of healthy kindergartners found that 97 percent had bacteria that were resistant to four out of six tested antibiotics. Resistant microbes constituted 15 percent of the children's oral bacteria, although none of the children had taken antibiotics in the previous three months.
Mexico and many other countries are vying for American markets by producing food exports in unsanitary and often-immoral conditions. These conditions are often worse when it comes to creating more disease-resistant microbes than American factory farms. If you really want to protect yourself and your family from superbugs—such as swine flu, bird flu and other human-folly diseases—do the following:
Wash your hands. A study released in March found one's using standard soap and scrubbing for 10 seconds to be among the most effective ways to get rid of bacteria. With 10 seconds of scrubbing, soap and water get rid of the common cold virus, hepatitis A and a host of other illness-bearing germs, the study found.
Eat local. Support small-scale local farms that produce meat using organic practices and "free-range" or "pastured" methods instead of farms that confine animals (and microbes) to small areas, where disease breeds.