There is no way to think that Sir Alexander Fleming could have seen it coming.
The Scottish biologist who first made penicillin back in 1928 probably didn’t think that his discovery would have such a profound impact on global society.
Think of the millions of people whose lives have been saved because of his discovery.
On top of that, think of the millions of animals whose lives have been improved because of that discovery, and the discovery of subsequent antibiotics that do an even better job of treating bacterial disease.
He couldn’t have imagined, either, that those bad bacteria would someday become resistant to the medicine he discovered. No one can say, for sure, how resistance developed.
Was it the average consumer who caused the resistance, flushing unused antibiotics down toilets and drains? Was it doctors who prescribed a good dose of antibiotics for every sneeze and sniffle they encountered? Or are farmers to blame, giving antibiotics to animals who weren’t sick or subscribing to the doctrine that “if 10cc works, 20cc will work better.”
No one really knows. Every camp espousing one theory or another has its own pile of research supporting the cause. Truth be told, it may be everyone’s fault.
Thankfully something is being done to try to rectify the situation.
A considerable effort has been made to educate consumers about how to properly dispose of antibiotics. Doctors are encouraged to prescribe antibiotics only when needed to treat a bacterial infection. And that leaves farmers, who seem to have borne the brunt of accusations from activist groups destined to put them out of business.
Today’s farmer’s choice of antibiotic is more limited than it was even 15 years ago. Feed grade antibiotics are closely monitored to ensure healthy animals do not receive antibiotics solely for growth promotion. Certain antibiotics used in human medicine are no longer available for use in animals. Veterinarians are encouraged to more closely monitor administration to ensure prescriptions are followed. Judicious use is now the norm instead of the exception.
The prevailing discussion around antibiotics inevitably comes down to one question – are they necessary. It’s likely that Sir Alexander Fleming would respond to the affirmative. Certainly the millions of people who are made healthy each year because of the use of antibiotics would agree.
But what about the use of antibiotics in farm animals? Certainly there are production schemes that raise perfectly healthy animals without the use of antibiotics. But in today’s world where sustainability is so aggressively sought, a solid argument can be made that antibiotics allow for more protein to be produced per unit, as animals that are healthy are innately more productive. If providing protein as part of a healthy diet is a priority, and the goal of feeding that diet to 9 billion-plus people by 2050 is real, then antibiotic use in farm animals should be part of that effort.
Times are different today than they were in 1928. And 2050 will be much different than today. If we are all going to be healthy, active and well-fed by that day—and have animals around as well—then antibiotics will have played a greater role certainly than Sir Alexander Fleming could ever have imagined.
Mike Opperman is Director of Account Planning at Charleston|Orwig and a lifelong agricultural communications specialist.