How do Antibiotics enter our food?

How do Antibiotics enter our food?

Antibiotics are a very critical discovery that humankind has made. They have made a significant contribution to increasing human life expectancy. In a pre-antibiotic world, mortality from infection was a widespread occurrence. Once antibiotics were discovered, many medical problems became easily solvable.  

However, what started as a means to save lives, has today become one of the biggest threats to global health. Over the years, we have abused antibiotics by using them carelessly, even when they are not needed. This has resulted in a phenomenon called ‘Antibiotic resistance’. Antibiotic resistance occurs when the bacteria causing infection, become resistant to the drug used to cure the infection.  

It may intuitively occur to us that the primary source of antibiotics entering our body would be the medicines. However, the real culprit is the food that we consume every day.  

In the pre-industrialization era, a farmer would practise holistic agriculture. He or she would have a piece of land and some livestock. A part of the land would be used to grow crops, and the other part would be used as pasture for the livestock.  

With the onset of industrialization, the demand for food increased. The medical advancements increased life expectancy, and there was substantial pressure on world agriculture to provide for the growing population. In response to this, the farmers, instead of practising holistic agriculture, started becoming specialists; they would either grow crops or raise livestock. Monoculture became a common practice. The farm animals started being raised in conditions that were utterly unaccommodating of their natural behaviour. All this to make more produce. However, in the process, we ended up compromising the soil and animal well-being.  

Farm animals that are made to stay in adverse living conditions are often susceptible to diseases emerging from stress as well as lack of hygiene. The diseases also led to decreased yield or even worse, animal mortality. To mitigate the situation, the farmers started making heavy unadministered use of antibiotics; sometimes, even when not required.  

As per a study by the WHO, in some countries, the amount of antibiotics used in animals is four times larger than the amount used in humans. Much surprisingly, most of the antibiotics used in animals are for growth promotion, and not for treating diseases. There are two outcomes to this. First, the animals develop antibiotic-resistant bacteria which are then transmitted to humans either through direct contact or through the food chain and environment. Second, the antibiotic itself makes way to our system through consumption of animal produce such as milk, meat or eggs.  

The instances of antibiotic resistance are increasing, and today they pose one of the greatest challenges to the World Health and Food security. However, with conscious efforts, the situation can be mitigated. We have to systematically avoid unwarranted use of antibiotics on a personal front as well as in our food chain.