The End of the Antibiotic Era? A Talk with KSJ Alum Maryn McKenna

How did antibiotics become such a central part of modern industrial agriculture? What are the consequences? Who’s rethinking practices around antibiotic use on farms, and what are they learning? Those are the big questions journalist Maryn McKenna wanted to investigate when she started her Project Fellowship with the Knight Science Journalism program in August, 2013.

Seventeen months later, she’s a lot closer to understanding the full impact of rampant antibiotic use in meat production—and it isn’t pretty. Farm animals in the U.S. get four times more antibiotics, by volume, than humans, helping to drive myriad bacteria like staphylococcus to evolve resistance to the drugs on a scale that “is now authentically a worldwide crisis,” McKenna says. “Disease bacteria have become so resistant that we are in fact flirting with the end of the antibiotic era.”

Drawing on reporting she conducted during her Fellowship year, McKenna is writing a book about antibiotics in farming and has also produced a series of short videos on approaches to reducing antibiotic use on farms (see several of the videos below). On top of all that, she blogs about food and agriculture at Wired and National Geographic.

McKenna says that when she started her research, she expected to find nothing but bad news about industrial agriculture’s use and misuse of antibiotics and the public health peril it could be creating. “But I’m happy to report there are paths out of these disastrous unintended consequences, and some farmers are already pursuing them,” she says. McKenna says she’s been to farms in the Netherlands, France, and the U.S. where farmers are minimizing antibiotic use or returning to old practices that support productive farming without antibiotics. I interviewed her about her project, and her findings so far, via e-mail.

Wade Roush: How did you first become interested in the issue of antibiotic use on farms?

Maryn McKenna: In my previous book, Superbug (Free Press/S&S 2010), I sought to tell the story of the worldwide emergence of antibiotic resistance. As a “main character,” I selected the bacterium MRSA, drug-resistant staph. Going in, I thought I knew that there were two epidemics of MRSA: the first, a hospital-centered variety, emerged in 1960, and the second, a community-wide one, began spreading in the 1990s. During my research, I discovered that there were actually three epidemics: The third emerged on a farm in the Netherlands in 2004, first in pigs and then in people, and was linked genetically to a particular set of drugs widely used on farms. To my knowledge, Superbug is the first place that story was told—and of course there was much more than I could tell without distorting the narrative arc of that book. So that subject became the next thing I worked on.

WR: What’s the nightmare scenario if the use of antibiotics in meat production goes unchecked?

MM: There are two answers to that. The first is that the routine use of antibiotics in meat production is the prime mover of industrial-scale agriculture; the ability to make animals grow faster in less time made large-scale confinement farming feasible, and the ability to protect animals from the conditions of confinement made it possible for factory farming to continue and expand. So, in my view, the routine use of antibiotics sustains everything bad that is attached to cheap meat: damage to local environments, neglect of animal welfare, disenfranchisement of labor, undermining of the status of farmers, shifts in the balance of trade, changes in dietary patterns. To keep using antibiotics in the manner that we do is to agree that those increasingly negative trends should continue.

The second answer is that antibiotic resistance, which was a mostly manageable difficulty for the first 50 or so years after the beginning of the antibiotic era, is now authentically a worldwide crisis. Disease bacteria have become so resistant that we are in fact flirting with the end of the antibiotic era. A number of factors have contributed to that, including mis-use of antibiotics in human medicine and withdrawal of corporations from antibiotics manufacture. But a key driver is the effect on bacteria of the sheer volume of antibiotics given to animals in agriculture, which in the United States is three to four times what humans receive each year. The more antibiotics continue to be misused in this manner, the faster the post-antibiotic era will arrive.

WR: You’ve talked with farmers trying to reduce antibiotic use on their farms. Are you encouraged by anything you’ve seen so far? Are there feasible, scalable alternatives, or is antibiotic use just built into our current factory-farm system?

MM: As someone whose journalistic specialty is scary diseases, I was expecting my research for this book to be a deepening spiral into peril and despair—but I’m happy to report there are paths out of these disastrous unintended consequences, and some farmers are already pursuing them. In the Netherlands, farmers accomplished a 50 percent cut in routine antibiotic use over two years without even trying hard; they are now aiming for 70 percent. In France, farm cooperatives that have never used antibiotics have secured an “agriculture of the middle” that dominates the markets for some meat products. And here in the US, innovative farmers are reviving old practices—heritage breeds, rotational grazing—while using modern tech which allows them to recreate these traditional methods at scale.

WR: How has the Knight program’s support figured into your project?

MM: In many ways. First, I could not have visited any of those farms I just mentioned without the financial support of my fellowship grant. Second, since much of the story I am telling lies in documents that were never digitized, the richness of the MIT library system and the assistance of MIT librarians (especially Michelle Baildon at Hayden) have been invaluable. And finally, I approached this project knowing that I would need to tell the story in multiple media in order to make it accessible to as many audiences as possible, yet I had, unaccountably, never lifted a video camera. The training I got from KSJ’s Patrick Wellever and visiting faculty Duy Linh Thu has enabled me to tell this story in a set of multimedia packages. Some have already debuted online and others, and perhaps a longer film, are still to come.

Check out these videos produced by Maryn McKenna as part of her project studying antibiotics in agriculture.

The Farm of the Good Shepherd from maryn on Vimeo.

Getting a Farm Off Antibiotics from maryn on Vimeo.

Questioning Farm Antibiotic Rules from maryn on Vimeo.

1 Family, 5 Generations, 10 Species, 1 Farm from maryn on Vimeo.