Freshwater scarcity is a major environmental concern worldwide. As our population grows, there is an increase in demand for fresh water for our own consumption and for producing the food we eat. Animal agriculture not only consumes our precious fresh water supply, the industry is also contaminating our waterways with multi-drug resistant bacteria that threatens human health. Antibiotic resistance is a global threat, with resistant infections killing an estimated 700,000 to several million people every year (O’Neill J, 2016; WHO 2014).
An estimated 85% of global water consumption is attributed to agriculture (Shiklomanov and Rodda, 2003) and that number is projected to double by 2050 (Tilman et al., 2002). Factory farms contaminate waterways via run-off from manure, leakage or seepage from manure storage, livestock pens, pastures, and directly from fish farms.
The two main sources of antibiotic resistant bacteria and genes that perpetuate resistance are human sewage and animal manure (Servais and Passerat, 2009). The routine use of antibiotics in animal agriculture promotes the formation of resistant strains of bacteria. In fact, an estimated 80% of antibiotics sold in the United States are used on animals and 90% of those antibiotics are excreted in the urine or stool (Ferri, M. et al, 2017). There is a large body of data to show that livestock feces contains E. coli resistant to a number of different antibiotics (Anderson et al., 2006; Boerlin et al., 2005; Carson et al., 2008; Deckert et al., 2010; Government of Canada, 2009).
Studies have shown that groundwater close to farms can be contaminated with bacteria carrying resistance genes (Anderson and Sobsey, 2006; Mackie et al., 2006) and that water contaminated with resistant bacteria can transmit antibiotic resistant bacteria to humans (Coleman et al., 2012) and animals (Krumperman, 1983; Mariano et al., 2009).
Those who raise livestock on their property have been shown to be at risk of having their wells contaminated with E. coli and/or fecal coliform bacteria (Rudolph and Goss, 1993). Pig farms have been shown to also have contaminated well water (Anderson and Sobsey, 2006). In other studies, drug resistant genes were found more frequently in wells located closer to pig manure lagoons, which supports the theory that pig production facilities are sources of resistance genes (Mackie et al., 2006).
Clean drinking water should be a right for all, and our surface and groundwater needs to be protected for our future. The spread of bacterial resistant genes in our waterways pose a serious threat to our health and safety.
Antibiotic use in factory farms has become increasingly necessary as farmers are forced to raise greater numbers of animals in relatively small areas in order to maintain a financially viable system. Decades ago, it would not have been possible to produce animals in the numbers we do today without the benefit of modern technology, like antibiotics. These antibiotics allow the continued production of animals in the packed numbers that would not have been feasible before. Animals raised in these conditions would have become sick, grown more slowly and it would have been less profitable for the farmer to keep more animals in a small space, were it not for the addition of antibiotics to facilitate this change in practice.
The consequence of over crowded factory farms and rampant antibiotic use is a threat to our public health. There is an urgent need to change the ways in which we feed our growing population. A factory farm near you just might be contaminating your water supply and brewing a drug resistant gene that could put the health of you and your family at risk.
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