A new paper finds that the over-use of antibiotics by the agriculture and aquaculture industries is posing a threat to public health, and the way out is to impose a fee on their "non-human use."
A good 80 percent of the antibiotics in the US, for instance, is used in agriculture and aquaculture to increase food production, says the paper, published in the latest edition of the New England Journal of Medicine.
The antibiotics released by these industries into the environment - either sprayed on plants or fed to poultry and salmon - have led bacteria to evolve, writes Aidan Hollis of the University of Calgary.
Resistant pathogens are emerging because of such release, resulting in an increase in bacteria that are immune to available treatments, says Hollis and co-author Ziana Ahmed.
If the problem is left unchecked, it will create a health crisis on a global scale, Hollis contends.
"Modern medicine relies on antibiotics to kill off bacterial infections," says Hollis. "Without effective antibiotics, any surgery - even minor ones - will become extremely risky. Ordinary infections will kill otherwise healthy people."
Bacteria that can effectively resist antibiotics will thrive, Hollis adds, reproducing rapidly and spreading in various ways.
"It's not just the food we eat," he says. "Bacteria is spread in the environment; it might wind up on a doorknob. You walk away with the bacteria on you and you share it with the next person you come into contact with. If you become infected with resistant bacteria, antibiotics won't provide any relief."
Describing the agriculture and aquaculture sectors' use of antibiotics as a "low-value application", Hollis says it is used "so you can reduce the amount of grain you feed the cattle? It's about giving antibiotics to baby chicks because it reduces the likelihood that they're going to get sick when you cram them together in unsanitary conditions".
While these methods are profitable to the farmers, they do not generate huge benefit, says Hollis, adding: "The real value of antibiotics is saving people from dying. Everything else is trivial."
Hollis says the way out is to impose a user fee on the non-human uses of antibiotics, much as oil companies pay royalties. This, he believes, will encourage farmers to improve animal management methods and adopt better substitutes for the drugs, such as vaccinations.
Describing the problem as international, rather than US-specific, Hollis warns: "Resistant bacteria do not respect national borders."