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MRSA in Pigs and Colony Collapse Disorder: Parables of Unsustainability

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Friday, March 13, 2009
Updated: Tuesday, February 15, 2011
Researchers in Canada and Europe have found Methicillin resistant staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) in pigs and the farmers who care for them, and Michael Pollan suggests that discovery holds an important warning about dangerous modern agricultural practices.

Michael Pollan wrote The Botany of Desire,The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and his newest book, In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto. When Pollan writes, it’s worth reading, and his 12-16-07 essay "Our Decrepit Food Factories” in the New York Times, is thoughtful and disturbing. He fears sustainability has become a trendy term that has lost its impact while unrealistic expectations of consumers and the extreme measures of modern industry create destructive practices that foreshadow to systemic breakdowns.

We want cheap meat, Pollan writes, so we raise vast numbers of pigs, chickens and cattle crammed in pens where feed containing antibiotics promotes rapid growth and prevents death from contageous disease. "Without these pharmaceuticals, meat production practiced on the scale and with the intensity we practice it could not be sustained for months, let alone decades,” he writes.

The Union of Concerned Scientists estimated in 2001 that pigs, cows and poultry in the US received more that eight times the amount of antibiotics in their feed and water than humans got for treatment of diseases. No recent data indicates a reduction since then. Dutch researchers found Community Acquired MRSA in pig farmers and their families, Michael Smith writes at MedPage today. It’s not clear how the animals acquired the bacteria, he writes, but it has been shown to be resistant to tetracycline, an antibiotic commonly used in animal feeds.

Much has been written about how over-use of antibiotics creates anti-biotic resistant strains of bacteria. Drugs kill off most of the microbes, but a few with some genetic differences survive, evolve and multiply into a drug-resistant super-race. The MRSA that emerged in hospitals 40 years ago differs from the community acquired MRSA that is afflicting people outside of healthcare environments today. In theOmnivore’s DilemmaPollan describes how our demand for cheap beef results in a bizarre perversion of bovine digestion. Corn is the cheapest feed to fatten cattle fast. But their stomachs aren’t designed for it. It makes them susceptible to near fatal bloating, liver disease, and it weakens their immune systems so they are vulnerable to a vast array of feedlot diseases, including pneumonia. Activists who oppose using antibiotics to make healthy animals grow faster don’t object to treating sick animals with drugs. But Pollan says that distinction is meaningless with cattle because the way we feed them makes them sick.

The National Pork Producers Council says Dutch research suggests MRSA in food animals is not a food safety hazard. But Pollan argues human health is inextricably linked to the health of animals we eat through the web of relationships that create our environment.

MRSA and colony collapse disorder among bees may both point to systemic breakdowns in modern agriculture. To serve 600,000 acres of almond orchards in California, Pollan writes by way of example, bees are transported from all over the US and Australia. Bees dormant in Minnesota’s frigid winter are perked up with pollen patties that include high fructose corn syrup and flower pollen imported from China.

He says we can’t keep trying to make natural systems and living organisms function like machines. He writes in The Times piece: We’re asking too much of our bees and pigs. By maximizing production and keeping food cheap, we push natural systems and organisms to their limit. When bees or pigs remind us they are not machines we invent ingenious "solutions” such as antibiotics to keep pigs healthy or foreign bees to pollinate the domestic almonds. But this year’s solutions become next year’s problems. That is, they're not "sustainable.”

From this perspective, the Colony Collapse Disorder and drug-resistant staph are both parables about the vulnerabilities monocultures. When we try to rearrange natural systems to operate like machines we lose biological resilience and the brittle systems we create are prone to breaking down. The questions is whether we can learn enough about sustainability to prevent even bigger crises and collapses.

Tags:  buscell  complexity matters  health  MRSA 

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