Source: National Institute for Animal Agriculture
Whether it’s warranted or not, animal agriculture has taken the blunt force of criticism regarding antibiotic use and its alleged effect on antibiotic-resistance infections in humans.
But blaming an incredibly complex problem on a single source doesn’t help solve it. And make no mistake—antibiotic resistance is a threat.
“Antimicrobial resistance is becoming more of a problem because more and more of our infections are resistant to antibiotics, thus limiting the effectiveness of these drugs,” Tim LaPara says. “There are predictions that antimicrobial resistance will actually be responsible for more deaths in the next 50 years than cancer.”
LaPara is an environmental engineer at the University of Minnesota. He’s devoted the past 15 years to exploring antibiotic resistance – looking for clues that could slow the growth of resistant bacteria in both urban and rural communities.
“The problem with antibiotic resistance is almost certainly related to how much antibiotics we use. The unfortunate part of that is we can’t stop using antibiotics. They’re incredibly important. This is called the antibiotic resistance paradox – the thing that we need destroys the thing that we need,” he says. “So, we need other solutions beyond reducing antibiotics use.”
LaPara and his students have turned to investigating the environment, searching for antimicrobial-resistant genes in materials like human and animal waste. There, the bacteria compound the problem.
“The environment plays a vital role in the spread of antimicrobial resistance. If you think about it, organisms that make us sick can’t magically go from human to human. There has to be some sort of conduit by which they spread,” LaPara notes. “Bacteria have the ability to evolve exceptionally quickly. We can do it in the laboratory within a few days and actually observe them change and become resistant to antibiotics.”
LaPara’s research focuses on how to improve municipal wastewater treatment practices, as well as the treatment of animal manure, to more effectively kill the bacteria. He suggests wastewater centers adopt a type of high-temperature or incineration system to more effectively kill bacteria. In places like feedyards or dairies, LaPara says composting or spreading less manure over more land can help stem the resistance problem, where everyone plays a role.
“There are a lot of potential driving forces for bacteria to become resistant to antibiotics. Certainly, there is human medical use of antibiotics. There are also a lot of anti-bacterial compounds that we use in everyday life such as in hand sanitizers, hand soap and even toothpaste,” he says. “In all of those places, we’re imposing selective pressure on bacteria.
“The problem is extraordinarily complex. There are a lot of people and entities that are responsible for the spread of antimicrobial resistance. Similarly, I think the solution to antimicrobial resistance needs to be multi-faceted,” he says. “It needs to take into account reductions in human health, reductions in animal agriculture and a lot of other changes in the environment to really slow the spread of resistance.”