Every year in the US, around nine billion chickens are killed for their meat. The vast majority of these birds spend their lives in cramped quarters, caged in vast warehouses, barely able to move and rarely exposed to sunlight. Such conditions, while ideal for farming efficiency, should be unsustainable. Buildings with so many living things piled on top of one another should be breeding grounds for illness and disease. That nearly nine billion chickens, as well as millions of other animals around the world, can be raised in such a way is down to one of the 20th century’s most important innovations - antibiotics.
The food industry is big business. In a global marketplace with incessant demands for huge quantities of affordable produce, our agriculture has become increasingly both modernised and mechanised. Our dinner is less about what’s natural and more about what’s profitable. The demands of consumers have forced farmers to prioritise speed, efficiency and size over flavour and nutrition. The introduction of antibiotics has helped farmers everywhere tick all of these boxes.
Pharmaceutical companies have successfully engineered products to assist with all manner of farming issues. Some, as we’ve mentioned, have been designed to prevent the spread of disease, allowing huge numbers of livestock to be raised with minimal space requirements. This means that more animals are able to make it to slaughter without perishing - good news for both farmers and those who enjoy readily available meat.
Other drugs could be said to be even more “unnatural”. Potentially among the most alarming are growth hormones. Relatively common in most inorganic meat and dairy products, livestock administered with growth hormones reaches "slaughter weight" significantly more quickly than those that are left alone, allowing farmers to raise more animals and theoretically make more profit. Coupled with the disease-preventing attributes of other drugs, the economic argument for why farmers may choose to operate in this way is pretty compelling.
The use of pharmaceuticals in our farms has, at least on the surface, been good news for consumers as well as businesses. As farmers have been able to increase their productivity, meat has become cheaper than ever before. Until the introduction of drugs, meat remained a relatively expensive luxury for many people. The dramatic increase in productivity during the 20th century introduced meat to the masses and helped it become the integral part of our culinary landscape that it is today.
For many years, these tangible, clearly visible positives restricted the discussion around the potential drawbacks of drugs in our food. Businesses were happy with bigger profits and consumers were happy with affordable meat. As time has moved on, however, the tenor of the conversation has begun to change. It’s become clear that, not only are some drugs having an adverse effect on both animals and people, but that the industry as a whole cannot be trusted to operate within the bounds of the law.
Theoretically, the amount of potentially harmful drugs and antibiotics present in meat and dairy products should be barely traceable by the time it reaches the dinner table. However, in many cases, farmers are pushing the boundaries in an attempt to increase productivity. In 2016, random FDA testing in Michigan revealed that some beef was being sold as safe despite being contaminated with over 13 times the legal limit of a restricted anti-inflammatory drug. This example is not an isolated incident. Meat and other products contaminated in such a way clearly pose a potential health hazard to consumers everywhere.
While the idea of drugs in our food is far from palattable, perhaps the most significant consequence of antibiotic use in farming is a little more subtle. In many cases, farmers are pre-emptively striking against disease by pumping livestock full of the most effective preventative antibiotics currently available. This is a particular problem in economies such as China, where demand for meat has skyrocketed in recent years. The result is that we are inadvertently helping to foster drug-resistant “superbugs” in our livestock. Should these new diseases become transmitted to the human population, the overuse of drugs in our food will have left us totally defenceless. This scenario is a ticking time-bomb and has experts seriously concerned.
Though this situation paints a pretty bleak picture for the future of farming, our current predicament is still salvageable. Research suggests that a move towards more sustainable, organic farming practices will have positive effects for both livestock and consumers. Free-range produce has been shown to consistently outshine factory farmed rivals in taste tests, whilst other studies have shown that animal psychology can have a huge impact on the quality of produce. Though such techniques may not be as efficient as more mechanised approaches, it is clear that we need to rethink our current attitudes if we’re to avoid a major health crisis.
Though agriculture is a huge industry, it is worth remembering that, ultimately, it is consumers who hold the power. Unfortunately, it seems that our love of plentiful and freely available animal products simply isn't sustainable.