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Science and Business, Out to Help You? A practical look at Antibiotics in Aquaculture|

June 23rd, 2012 by Andrew J. Ripley

Young boy with green medical mask


I wanted to look at a recent news story that appears to cast aquaculture in a negative light.  Recently, researchers at the FDA found that some imported shrimp contained drug resistant bacteria, which is similar to findings in beef, pork, turkey and chicken that have been problematic for these industries as well.  But before I go any further, I wanted to provide some context for people who are unfamiliar with this issue so they can understand why this is disconcerting.


Background Explanation

Animals, including those grown on a farm, can get sick. If they get ill, for hygiene reasons we really should not eat them, thus they should not be sold in the market. Some modern farmers preemptively give their animals drugs, like antibiotics, to keep them healthy and thus marketable even if they are not already sick. This helps us by keeping our food plentiful, high in protein and also low in cost. However, this can also hurt us because there are very real human health concerns that may result from this.

First, we must understand that when people get diseased doctors will sometimes prescribe antibiotic drugs. In general, the more antibiotics are used, then the less effective they become as the bacteria can and do adapt to resist them. So what we’ve found to be problematic is that if we eat food that has been treated with antibiotics then these antibiotics lose their potency and no longer are as effective when we need them. Not only that, if we don’t conserve our usage of these antibiotics, the bacteria we’re trying ward off will have greater opportunity to adapt and in the long term could make them immune to our drugs. And if a new strain of deadly bacteria gets loose in our densely populated cities we could be in the middle of a juggernaut of an outbreak. (For more related to this, check out our recent video on population growth concerns.)

Given this context it’s easy to see how people can quickly blame agribusiness for exploiting medical technology in the name of higher profit margins and favorable quarterly prospectives. But the issue is more complicated than that.

Why can’t we just tell agribusiness to stop?

The problem is not that we can’t tell them, because we already have. The problem is that we also tell them emphatically to continue!

Our laws and FDA regulations, tell agribusiness what is and what is not acceptable means to keep their livestock healthy. However, our buying behavior tells them to cut costs and bring food to market cheaply. What this creates is a situation where business must make a loose-loose choice. The must either choose to be compliant, which in a nutshell may mean they’re less profitable (be it because their animal’s survival rate drops or because they have to invest in more expensive prevention technologies, etc), or to varying degrees be non-compliant, garner higher profits but at the risk of legal repurcusions (which, again would lead to loss of profits). Different businesses will react differently. This phenomenon is further complicated by the fact that many of the major producers in aquaculture, specifically, are overseas and have less oversight.


What is the solution, then?

I’m sure there are people that think we should create stronger regulations and enforce harsher penalties, like trade embargoes. However, we have to be judicious with our edicts. If we are too harsh we can stifle aquaculture to the point where it doesn’t grow as fast as we need it to to keep up with our growing global population.  Others say we must learn to sacrafice and be willing to pay more for food. While I think we all as individuals may be amenable to this, I don’t think our societies as a whole would be unless there was some large crises that got everyone’s attention first.

On the other hand, I know of another solution because TransGenada is working on it! We are working to create a win-win choice for shrimp farmers dealing with disease, viruses, and dying shrimp.  And we are not alone! Just this last week or head scientist, Dr. Jeremy Ellis attended a seminar where he learned of new ways scientists have developed to help control a deadly infection caused by Vibrio bacteria. More to come later…