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Is antibiotic use in livestock killing humans?

ABThis morning, I awoke to several “news stories,” suggesting that low level and regular antibiotic use in livestock is contributing to widespread antibiotic resistance.

An example from SFGate (a San Francisco local news and entertainment portal), entitled “Report links antibiotics at farms to human deaths”:

“The Centers for Disease Control on Monday confirmed a link between routine use of antibiotics in livestock and growing bacterial resistance that is killing at least 23,000 people a year.”

Other headlines, mostly from websites promoting vegetarian diets and opposing “factory farming,” state emphatically that the CDC has “discovered a link” between the administration of antibiotics and antibiotic resistance:”

“Antibiotics Used to Make Livestock More Profitable May Be Killing Us” – Truth Out

“Farm Antibiotics Linked to Human Deaths: CDC” – NewMaxHealth

I took the time to download and read the actual report (crazy, I know), “Antibiotic Resistance Threats in the US: 2013”. Within the report, there are statements of concern regarding risks of low level antibiotic use on factory farms. The CDC suggests that the practice should be phased out.

However, nowhere in the text does the CDC attribute any of the (estimated) 23,000 yearly deaths from drug resistant infections to livestock farming specifically. The report provides no indication as to what percentage of deaths are due to antibiotic use on farms, nor to any other specific cause.

This is, of course, for good reason. No one really knows.

What I found interesting, was a graphic that illustrates how drug resistant bacteria (and fungi) emerge and infiltrate the human population. In the graphic, there are two possible scenarios:

1) Resistance develops within the human gut, and resistant strains of bacteria spread through institutional environments by way of contact with fecal matter and due to improper cleaning and sterilization procedures.

2) Resistance develops within the animal gut, and drug resistant bacteria enter the human population through improperly cooked meat and through poor management of animal discharge with contaminates vegetable crops which humans eat.

The first scenario, is, of course, an operational problem. Out patient procedures are becoming more common to minimize the possibility of spreading resistant bacteria within institutional environments, but obviously it is impossible to contain every possible pathway at all times.

The second is more interesting, but again, this is also an operational problem. The first pathway, contact with uncooked meat, is a fairly easy problem to solve on an individual level. Cook your burgers or buy your horse sashimi only from places you can trust. Of course, there is no failsafe here.

The problem of discharge management is also an operational one. Farms have to maintain standards to insure that animal waste does not contact, say spinach farms as happened back in 2009.

I cannot say whether antibiotic use is good or bad for raising livestock (having no expertise in the field), though I will take many of colleagues words at face value and assume that it is not necessary and that the potential costs outweigh the benefits. The jury seems to be out on the issue, however.

However, it would appear from the CDC report, that the greater potential for harm comes from operational issues, which should be resolved in any case. Though resistant bacteria are a threat to human health (and potentially detrimental to the long term economic health of the food industry), there are many other threats that follow the exact same transmission pathways. The e. coli outbreak in California spinach in 2009 is a great example.

Though I understand that those who oppose meat eating or factory farming wish to use what I would call a distortion of the fact and the CDC report to further a particular political position, it would seem that those interested in protecting human health would be far better off calling for more stringent standards within the livestock industry.

So, to answer the question in the title: “Is antibiotic use in livestock killing humans?, ” I have the following responses:

1. It is not clear from the CDC report that any of the 23,000 deaths have anything to do with livestock.

2. Assuming that any of the deaths have anything to do with livestock, the problem would appear to have more to do with how food is cooked (dumbass factor) and the poor management of animal waste (both of which also come with other threats to human health).

Now, before anyone accuses me of trying to minimize the problem, it is true that antibiotic resistance is a serious, serious problem. Antibiotics are over prescribed in the United States to humans, and new antibiotics are not being developed (mostly). We’ve run out of options to fight existing bacteria and as long as doctors are willing to hand antibiotics out like candy, the problem will only become more severe.

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NOTE: Now, this blog post is not a defense of the livestock industry, nor a call for greater use of antibiotics. In general, however, I take issue with misuse and distortions of data for political aims on any part of the political spectrum. Call it a weakness of mine.

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Guest Blog: Jamie Ought to Put his Money Where he Thinks Poor People’s Mouths Should Be

Jim Pyke as Iron Man

Jim Pyke as Iron Man

Jim Pyke is an old friend from Ann Arbor. Besides laying claim to wearing meat as clothing before Lady Gaga, he cooks really good food which I inexplicably keep not taking advantage of. He has offered to write today’s post for me (not that I write every day):

I’ve just browsed around some articles online about the latest Jamie Oliver “controversy.” The issue, in which Oliver is persistently laying himself open to criticism for blaming the poor for some of their own travails, basically boils down to this (from an essay in The Guardian by Alex Andreou):

Oliver observes:

“The poorest families in this country choose the most expensive way to hydrate and feed their families. The ready meals, the convenience foods.”

If only he could travel back in time and advise the homeless me of 2009 how to replace a Tesco Value lasagna or Tesco Value chicken curry, both under £1, with something healthy that I can buy from the King’s Cross Tesco Metro (the only supermarket within walking distance) and cook in a microwave (the only cooking apparatus at my disposal).

This points to the idea that the real issue, the one Oliver isn’t seeing – despite his generally acknowledged good intentions – much less addressing is actually infrastructural, as opposed to attitudinal, cultural, or whatever “boot-strappy” fallacy Oliver is allowing himself to get caught up in.

Where I live it is relatively easy to walk or catch a bus to a well-stocked grocery store, but this is not always the case – especially in places of concentrated poverty. Additionally, the tools and equipment needed to cook cheap, healthy and *fast* meals may be neither readily available, nor cheap to purchase in those same areas. For example, I can make a lot of staple foods pretty quickly in my kitchen with just a bag of flour and a few other common ingredients.

However, this would take a prohibitive amount of time without my stand mixer and the attachments I have amassed for it over the years. Plus there’s the fact that cooking anything from raw ingredients requires, even more fundamentally, a bare minimum of clean, uncluttered counter space (to say nothing of a functional stove, oven, pots and pans, etc.).

Maybe instead of writing more cookbooks (even giving copies of them away to every public library in the country – as he did in an odd effort toward damage control) and spreading himself around on the TV, Jaime would do well to partner with or mentor some potential business operators in impoverished neighborhoods in order to open fresh food co-op stores. They could go further and add well-equipped co-op kitchens/dining rooms around the backs of the stores.

These cooperatively run businesses could become pillars of their neighborhoods where people could come together and strengthen themselves with healthy food and robust social relationships. They could benefit from sharing the knowledge of individuals in those communities some of whom undoubtedly work in food service or have family food traditions and would be only too happy to give back to their neighbors in this way. Kids could go there to learn how to make their own healthy after school snacks and eat them while hanging out and doing their homework in the co-op dining rooms in the hours before the evening neighborhood dinners available through pay-at-the-door or multiple-meal punch card buy-ins.

The economy of scale – especially if the idea could somehow be “franchised” – would benefit everyone in the neighborhoods by providing lower prices for and higher availability of healthy fresh food.

I am not a business person myself, but I suspect something like this would require ongoing charitable donations or an endowment of some kind to ensure that it wouldn’t just fall into disrepair almost immediately after the grand opening. Such funding would likely also be required for core staffing needs. Volunteerism is great, but even good organizations that run mostly by the grace of willing volunteers need a core of paid staff in most cases. Maybe Jaime and his fellow celebrity chefs could rally some of their millions to provide that seed money instead of (or at least in addition to) trying to sell poor people copies of the companion book to his new TV series.

Imagine all the free publicity and product placement possibilities present in these proposed shop/cook/dine hybrid storefronts. (I do think it’s important to balance being hopeful about positive social change against a touch of skepticism or even cynicism regarding the ability of celebrities to drive that change.)

Come to think of it, the journey to setting up something like that would probably make a really lovely, very sincerely uplifting reality TV series.

“Monsanto Protection Act”: Liberal Outrage or Herd Behavior?

Liberals gone wild

Liberals gone wild

I’ve been seeing a number of fiery comments from my liberal bretheren regarding the recent “Monsanto Protection Act.” Normally, I try to be sympathetic to liberal politics, but sometimes I can’t help but shake my head in disgust. I expect ignorance from the listeners of Rush Limbaugh. It’s disappointing when the supposedly better educated fall prey to the same gimmicks. It’s worth pointing out that even conpiracy nut Alex Jones has taken on the same position liberals have.

First, there is no such thing as a “Monsanto Protection Act” anymore than there is any such thing as “Obamacare.” This is a term created by the item’s opponents to rile up opposition, rather than foster critical analysis. I think that Liberals should be well aware of the political problems associated with demonizing and reductionist labeling of things they don’t like.

Second, though Presidents can veto any bill that comes across his desk, the veto of appropriations bills are rare, and have often been overridden by Congress in the past. It may be a shock to liberals, but Presidents aren’t kings. Conservatives often don’t seem to understand the three branches of Government. Liberals often appear to understand it even less.

Third, there was hardly “no debate.” A Google search will reveal that discussions of this particular item go back at least to June of 2012 and the “Famer’s Assurance Provision” as it is correctly known is part of another Ag Appropriations bill which passed last year. Anyone who tells you this is new, is either lying, or doesn’t know what they are talking about. (Even Snopes took this on.)

Fourth, there is no evidence (that I’m aware of) that GMO’s, which are already in our food supply, are having deleterious effects on human health or the environment. There have been some studies on mouse models that I know of, but it appears that no one can really agree on what a “GMO” really is. Until we can nail that down, and have more informed discussion of which GMOs are “bad” and which are “good”, I don’t think that screaming about GMO’s is any more productive than poorly informed discussion of complex issues such as climate change.

I’m not trying to suggest that there are no effects of “GMOs” whatever they may be. I am saying that lefties are accepting that there are broad effects without question and are relying on less-than-scientific and politically motivated sources such as Salon and the Huffington Post to inform them. That’s a very, very dangerous position to take.

Fifth, I think we should all know by now that rightists use issues like this to weaken Democratic Presidencies. I was of the opinion that much of the furor over controversial portions of the 2012 NDAA bill was stoked by right wingers hoping for a Achilles heel in the 2012 Obama campaign. When we buy into this type of sensationalist reporting without examining the evidence, we play right into their hands.

Sixth, well, I had a sixth, but lost it. But back to GMO’s: It’s interesting that discussions of GMO’s in Sub-Saharan Africa are opposite of what we hear in the US. People view the American and European opposition to GMOs, some of which have the potential to increase food yield while minimizing inputs, as an infringement on developing countries’ rights of self determination. It’s easy to dismiss their concerns as uninformed. However, people and policy makers in developing countries face competing issues of immediate economic needs and broad environmental concerns. Lots of things seem obvious to us, but then we have most of our basic needs already met.

I mean this not as a defense of the Farmer’s Assurance Provision or anything else having to do with GMO’s (so chill out). The endless (and perhaps deserved) vilification of Monsanto has reached a point where examination of the facts is secondary to screaming like a blithering idiot. To me, this is dangerous. When we reduce ourselves to merely accepting positions without criticism, we allow ourselves to be manipulated by just about anything. Not everyone has the time to read all that is required to create a truly informed and reasoned opinion on all subjects, I realize. Striving toward obtaining as much information as is reasonable, however, and acting critically should be a priority for everyone, however.

Liberals are the smart ones. We can do better.

Food Prices and Conflict in Sub-Saharan Africa

African Conflict and Worldwide Food Prices, 1997-2013

African Conflict and Worldwide Food Prices, 1997-2013

I decided I’d continue on this theme of African conflict for a bit after noticing some interesting trends in the data.

I’ve written before on the link between unrest in South Africa and the problem of rising food prices. Looking at the plot of the right, it’s not hard to notice the similarities in the series of conflict events post 2005 to food prices as estimated by the FAO’s Food Price Index (FPI).

I began to wonder whether some of the recent rise in conflict events is somehow related to rising food commodity prices. Having found a correlation in South Africa, it’s not out of the realm of possibility.

I calculated the cross correlations between the FPI and conflict events and found that the FPI was predictive of conflict, but that conflict was not predictive of FPI. This was similar to what I found in South Africa.

Plotting the FPI against the number of monthly conflict events, I found something interesting. It appears that the two are mostly unrelated until the FPI reaches a threshold of approximately 200, then the number of monthly events shoots up. It is interesting to note that in other research, 210 was the assumed maximum price that households would absorb before taking to the streets.

I’ve repeatedly written on the problem of stock market speculation in food commodities as a cause for rising volatility in world food prices. I won’t beat this into the ground again. However, results such as these indicate that the problem of rising and volatile food prices is not just an economic problem, but also a problem of human health and welfare.

FPI and Monthly Events with Threshold

FPI and Monthly Events with Threshold

Cross correlations of FPI and monthly conflict events

Cross correlations of FPI and monthly conflict events

More on Financialization of Food Commodities

I’ve written at length on the issue of the issue of financialization of food and price volatilities. Yet, when I bark about the subject, few around me seem convinced (and that’s ok, I’m never very convincing).

I found a cool video that sort of lays the issue out and explains the mechanics behind the world food trade system, and why the increased role of speculators is wreaking havoc on the world’s food prices. The common narrative is that issues of supply (droughts) and demand (bio-fuels, China) are the culprits.

Intuition might confirm this, and it is logical to assume that pressures on a limited supply of goods would lead to increases in price, but intuition is only as good as the amount of information possessed. The trouble with narratives that involved financial markets is that some knowledge of finance is required. Finance usually bores people to tears. Videos like this are a great step.

Supply and demand factors can explain gradual increases but can’t explain volatility in food prices. Rich people like us have no problem absorbing even a 200% increase in food prices. People living on a dollar a day have to make some pretty dire choices, and children end up malnourished.

The video gets a few things wrong. Namely, it states that speculators began seeking new investment areas and sources of growth after the bursting of the property bubble in the late 00’s. This is untrue. Speculators began trading in food commodities after a relaxing of rules during Clinton and the bursting of the tech equity bubble of 2000.

To me, this and the commoditization of water is the most important issue of our time and will have grave implications for the world’s future security.

Anyway, check out the video:

I was Interviewed by Mark Maynard on the Problem of Food Prices

And I’m still reeling. Tonight, I’ll be giving a haphazard lecture on the problem of rising food prices and the issue of agricultural commodity financialization for NWAEG (New World Agriculture and Ecology Group) here at the University of Michigan.

Mark was kind enough to interview me for the event, vastly overstating its relevance (my talk, the issue is very relevant).

Unfortunately, though, Mark is going to forego to the event to watch comedian and former Republican hopeful, Herman Cain.

You can find the interview here.

Rising Food Prices Might Be Causing Unrest in the Middle East and North Africa

Rising food prices and food riots

Last week, I put together a small post hypothesizing that rising food prices are associated with protests in South Africa. I showed how the pattern of newspaper reports on protests follows the current pattern on rising food prices, as measured through the FAO worldwide Food Price Index.

Turns out, researchers at the New England Complex Systems Institute had the same idea, but they applied it to food riots in the Middle East and North Africa. The results of their research are presented to the left.

The pattern is the same. Riots tend to be clustered during rapid price increases, and sparse (non-existent) when prices drop.

I have already written on the influence of Wall Street on price rise and volatility. This frightening pattern is no accident. If this result and mine are any indication, unrest will continue. Food prices will likely continue rising, with some intermittent drops.

My feeling is that the recent explosion of protest in Islamic countries is less related to a childish video, and more about individuals unable to properly feed their families. Given the United States financial sectors complicity in creating these conditions, they are right to be angry. Until the Americans become proactive toward regulating food commodity speculation, this situation will only worsen.

It is my opinion that this will be the most important issue of our time, and could very lead to massive instability and violence.

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