I prefer to buy local food whenever possible. I do it for a variety of reasons. Some of them are environmental – the closer to home my food is produced, the less carbon emitted getting it to me. Some of them are economical – gardening and buying in season are cheap. Some of them are about flavour – fresher food tastes better. And some of them are ideological – I like the idea of supporting my local community, including its farmers.
One of the biggest reasons that I like to buy local is that I can talk to the people who produce my food. Obviously, if I grow something myself, I know a lot about it. But I am far from being food independent. I buy the majority of my food, including all of my meat, eggs and dairy. I do not have my own chickens or cows, and I don’t see that changing anytime soon. And when I’m buying animal products like these, I have particular concerns. I want to know that the animals were treated humanely, and that the food is safe for my family to eat.
Why would I be worried about food safety? Because 70% of antibiotics in the US are used on food animals. Some estimates indicate that 15-17 million pounds of antibiotics are used sub-therapeutically in the US each year, in order to keep animals healthy and help them to grow faster. These animals aren’t sick, but they are crowded together in unsanitary conditions, so disease is an issue. Dosing animals with antibiotics is cheaper than providing them with more space or allowing them more time to mature, so the antibiotics are used.
The problem with routinely dosing animals with antibiotics is that it contributes to antibiotic resistance. A big ad campaign has been running locally, advising us that ‘not all bugs need drugs‘. The point is that using antibiotics unnecessarily, like to treat a flu virus that won’t respond to them, can lead to bacteria evolving a resistance to the drug. New strains are created that can’t be killed with certain antibiotics, and then when people become ill from the bacteria there are no treatment options. So humans are advised to use antibiotics judiciously and to always finish our whole prescription, to avoid contributing to the creation of super bugs.
The issue is that we might be only a small part of the problem. The super bug MRSA was found in the nasal passages of 70% of pigs on some Iowa farms. Chickens may carry drug-resistant salmonella. And cattle may carry drug-resistant E. coli. These bacteria can lead to humans, in turn, becoming sick and even dying. Particularly immune-compromised people, young children or the elderly. We might not be exposed to sick people, but when we eat we may be regularly exposed to sick animals.
Obviously, the use of antibiotics in agriculture is a complex issue. But it concerns me. I don’t want my family to be exposed to dangerous bacteria. And I don’t want cost to placed ahead of the health and safe treatment of the animals that provide me with food. I am willing to pay more for meat and eggs that are safe, and that come from healthy and happy animals.
One way to ensure that your food animals have not been treated routinely with antibiotics is to buy organic. Certified organic food may not contain synthetic chemicals such as pesticides, fertilizers, hormones and antibiotics. I do buy organic frequently, myself. But I think that an even better way is to get to know the farmer. Ask questions, visit the farm, see the animals. The beef that I buy isn’t certified organic, but the cows are grass-fed on an open range. For me, that first-hand knowledge is more important than a certification label.
When I consider the magnitude of the problems confronting our present food system, I can feel overwhelmed. But it’s heartening to know that I can still choose what I eat, and what I feed my family. I can vote with my dollars in support of a better way. And so I do, as much as possible. I visit my farmer’s market, and farm stands, and I garden. It’s my vote against super bugs, if you will.
What about you? Were you aware of how many antibiotics are used in agriculture? Does that alarm you, or does it reassure you? I’d love to hear your thoughts.
PS – May’s Crafting my Life series is about recognizing our innate awesomeness. On the last Thursday of the month, which just happens to be the 27th, I will include a link up. To participate, write a post on this month’s theme anytime in May, or track down a post you’ve written on the subject sometime in the past, and add yourself to the list. Then read everyone else’s ideas and thoughts and be inspired! Check out the link-ups from January, February and March to get a feel for how it works.