Resisting Resistance

A US-UK trade deal threatens to export the horrors of US corporate livestock production

By George Monbiot, published in the Guardian 14th February 2018


It looks like a proper zombie apocalypse. Bacteria we thought we had conquered are on the march again, defeating almost all attempts to slaughter them. Having broken through the outer walls, they have reached our last lines of defence. Antibiotic resistance is among the greatest threats to human health.

Infections that were once easy to quash now threaten our lives. Doctors warn that routine procedures, such as caesareans, hip replacements and chemotherapy, could one day become impossible, due to the risk of exposing patients to deadly infection. Already, in the European Union alone, 25,000 people a year are killed by antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

Yet our last defences – the rare drugs to which bacteria have not yet become immune – are being squandered with wild abandon. While most doctors seek to use them precisely and parsimoniously, some livestock farms literally slosh them around. They add them to the feed and water supplied to entire herds of cattle, pigs or poultry: not to treat illness, but to prevent it.

Or not even that. In the 1950s, farmers discovered that small quantities of antibiotics added to feed make animals grow faster. Using antibiotics as growth promoters – low doses routinely applied – is a perfect formula for generating bacterial resistance. Yet many countries continue to permit this reckless practice. The US Food and Drug Administration asks drug companies voluntarily to refrain from labelling antibiotics as growth promoters. But with a nod and a wink, it suggests they be rebranded for “new therapeutic indications”. Around 75% of the antibiotics used in the US are fed to farm animals. Our city is under siege, and we are knocking down our own defences.

The EU and the UK are no paragons. The Guardian has revealed that both pork and chicken sold here are infected with resistant superbugs. Outrageously, it is still legal in the UK to dose chickens with fluoroquinolones, powerful antibiotics that save many human lives: a practice even the US has banned.

But in other respects, the US, whose corporate livestock production looks more like HG Wells’s The Island of Doctor Moreau than anything you’d recognise as farming, makes our methods seem virtuous. Last week, the Alliance to Save Our Antibiotics revealed that the US uses on average roughly five times as many antibiotics per animal as the UK does.

Why? Because the stack ‘em high, sell ‘em low model of farming there, in which vast numbers of animals are reared in appalling conditions in megafarms, cannot be sustained without mass medication. The animals are weaned so young, are so debilitated and so crowded that extreme methods are required to keep them alive and growing. The impacts are not confined to the US: when America sneezes, the world catches antibiotic-resistant Salmonella.

There’s an urgent need for a global ban on the mass treatment of livestock with antibiotics, and on any use of the antibiotics of last resort in farming. Tough as this is for the economics of megafarms, human life is more important. But the opposite is happening. The US government hopes to use trade treaties to break down the resistance of other nations to its farming practices. And the UK is at the top of its list.

The EU bans imports of meat produced by some of the disgusting means developed in the US, such as injecting cattle with growth-promoting hormones, feeding pigs on ractopamine (a drug which raises their weight but can cause their bones to break and their motor functions to degenerate), and washing chicken carcasses with chlorine. This means that the cheapest, nastiest meat, whose production is most dependent on mass medication with antibiotics, is excluded, offering farmers here a degree of protection. Exposed to full competition with the US model, they would be faced with a choice of replicating its excesses (including the profligate use of antibiotics), or going under.

Does anyone trust the UK government to maintain EU standards once we leave? I don’t. The US government appears to see us as its European beachhead. In November, Trump’s commerce secretary Wilbur Ross announced that scrapping the EU food rules that currently apply here would be “critical component of any trade discussion” with the UK.

In January the US farm trade negotiator Ted McKinney told the Oxford Farming Conference that he was “sick and tired” of British complaints about US farm standards. Unsurprisingly perhaps: until 2014, he was head of global corporate affairs at the livestock drug company Elanco Animal Health. In this role, he lobbied for lower global standards on the pig drug ractopamine, which his company manufactured.

So who will resist them? Our trade secretary, Liam Fox, was sacked from his former post after mixing corporate interests with the business of the state to an extent that even David Cameron couldn’t tolerate. He has boasted that “we have a low regulation and low taxation environment which is only likely to improve outside the EU”. His department has insisted that any trade deal with the US is conducted in secret, without either public scrutiny or parliamentary approval. No prizes for guessing why.

In negotiating with the US, our government, which is desperate for a deal, has neither leverage nor expertise. In the inaugural trade discussions last year, the UK was unable to field a single experienced trade negotiator, while the US had 20. At home, a network of Conservative thinktanks lobbies for the radical deregulation of farming. Our political system, like that of the US, is dominated by big business and big money. From the point of view of the millionaires who funded the Leave campaign, the purpose of Brexit is to allow business to escape from the public protections the EU provides.

So what hope is there of defending ourselves against US farming practices, and their many impacts on human health, including the zombie resurgence of defeated bacteria? Well, as always, hope lies with us. Through massive resistance, led by campaigners in Britain, the people of Europe managed to defeat the noxious Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), despite the vast resources the US, the European Commission and the UK government poured into promoting it.

We must resist the government’s trade agenda with the same determination. When people voted for Brexit, their urge to take back control was genuine and deeply felt. So let’s not hand it either to the US or to British corporations and their stooges in government. For or against Brexit, we should all demand that trade negotiations are accountable to people and parliament, rather than stitched up in private by gruesome lobbyists. Our lives may even depend on it.