ARTICLE

Big Chicken: How Antibiotics Destroyed the Agricultural System

Chicken is the centrepiece of many of our meals. But it wasn’t always this way.

In 1909, 154 million chickens were sold for meat in the US. Today, that number is over 9 billion chickens (think about that - there are more chickens bred each year than there are humans alive).

What happened to chicken? Something must have changed. This is a story about how the quest for profits has brought our agriculture system to its knees.

In her latest book Big Chicken, Maryn McKenna explores how “chickens went from a scarce and expensive Sunday treat to the meat that Americans eat more often than any other and that is growing fastest in consumption around the world”. McKenna tells the story about the evolution of animal agriculture through the single scientific advancements that made chicken the cheap meat we enjoy today: antibiotics.

Antibiotics are medication that are used as treatment against bacterial infections. Prior to antibiotics, McKenna highlights how “minor infections were a death sentence”. 3 out of 10 people used to die from pneumonia prior to antibiotics as did 9 out of every 1000 women giving birth in the cleanest of hospitals.

Life as we know it wouldn’t be possible without antibiotics. And that’s the most terrifying and unsettling part of reading Big Chicken.

Through her book, McKenna shares the joint history about the emergence and rise of the chicken industry through using antibiotics in chicken feed as a growth promoter (to get the birds to grow bigger in a shorter amount of time). Soon enough, antibiotics also began to be used as preventative medicine to ensure that the birds did not get sick. As McKenna notes in the subtitle of her book, The Incredible Story of How Antibiotics Created Modern Agriculture and Changed the Way the World Eats, antibiotics created the modern agricultural system.

Now the very same agricultural system might lead to the end of antibiotics.

Antibiotic resistance arises when bacteria have mutations that prevents certain antibiotics from killing them, making them resistant to the antibiotic. The resistant bacteria survive and divide to produce more bacteria that is also resistant to the antibiotic treatment. They can even pass the resistance on to other bacteria (and can become resistant to multiple types of antibiotics).

Since the use of antibiotics first began in the animal agriculture (about 80% of antibiotics sold in the US are used in animal agriculture), there has been a dramatic increase in the number of public outbreaks of antibiotic resistant bacteria. More concerning, McKenna notes an even larger threat: outbreaks of diseases from multiple drug resistant bacteria.

If a bacterial infection is resistant to all types of antibiotic treatments, what hope do we have? Will we have entered the post-antibiotic era?

Fortunately, people are becoming more aware of the dangers of using antibiotics freely in animal agriculture and steps are being taken to cut back usage. In 2006, the European Union banned all antibiotic growth promoters (Netherlands and Sweden went beyond and banned all preventative antibiotic use as well). The United States followed suit and banned antibiotic growth promoters in 2017 (after many years of political and economic fights over the issue since the 1970s). On top of government policy, food players like Perdue Farms, Whole Foods, Chipotle, and Chik Fil A, have all committed to go antibiotic free as well.

As a fascinating (and terrifying) story of antibiotics and chicken, there are a few points that really stuck out to me while reading the book.

1. “Antibiotics have been so difficult to root out of modern meat because, in a crucial way, they created it”

One of the first realizations I had while reading this book was how antibiotics created the modern animal agricultural system. Following the success of antibiotics with chicken, the practice soon passed over to other animal farming practices (like pig and cattle). This lead to widespread antibiotic usage.

On top of that, without the invent of antibiotics, farmers would not have been able to keep more animals without them getting sick. How else could you keep so many animals in highly concentrated and closed environments with little space to move without disease running rampant?

Ironically, the antibiotics meant to treat animals led to even further animal welfare issues by leading the way to factory farming. McKenna reflects this elegantly:

“[Farmers] could squeeze animals in more tightly, clean their barns less frequently, scrimp on nutrition, turn a blind eye to pests – and know they were protected against disease that would otherwise have resulted, because the antibiotic doses protected their livestock from the start. The decision opened the door to industrial scale production and the animal welfare abuses it would one day be accused of.”

2. Emergence of Distrust in the Food System

Antibiotics were one of the first ways in which the latest scientific breakthroughs were integrated into our agriculture and food system.

This also led to the emergence of consumer distrust in our food system.

The clearest example of this from Big Chicken is the practice of acronization from the 1950s (mainly because of how ridiculous the concept sounds today). Once a chicken was ready to go to market, the chicken was dipped into a pool of an antibiotic solution. Now covered in a thin film of antibiotic residue, the chicken was ready to go and would last longer on the shelf without going bad. No surprise to us today, acronization led to one of the first public outbreaks of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. In the Seattle area, for example, poultry processors who practiced acronization were getting sick from a staph infection that wasn’t responding to antibiotics. This outbreak went on to infect 1,300 women and 4,000 newborns, killing 24 mothers and children. The USDA later confirmed that the infection of antibiotic-resistant staph emerged from acronization.

Naturally, the public was outraged.

Something that was meant to protect and preserve their food source made it riskier. How could the poultry industry do practices that could be dangerous and harmful for the public? What mattered more: the consumer’s sense of safety in their food, or the poultry industry’s ability to mass-produce chicken for their profit?

A trust was broken and what emerged was a public that distrusted the food production system and the integration of the food system with the latest scientific breakthroughs.

That same distrust of using the latest scientific technology still persists today. When genetically modified foods first entered the market, there was a huge public outcry against the technology (and a lot more against the company behind the technology). Today, we continue to live in an anti-GMO era. With new startups and companies working on being as open and transparent about their new food technologies, it will be interesting to see if the distrust in the food system that began with antibiotics remain.

3. The Biggest Advantage of Alternatives to Conventional Meat

I used to think that the biggest advantage of meat alternatives like cellular agriculture and plant-based meat alternatives was the environmental aspect by reducing resource consumption and greenhouse gas emissions. I was wrong.

I now realize the biggest advantage of meat alternatives is not requiring antibiotics to make animal products.

Big Chicken shows that antibiotic resistance is on the rise and, if not careful, is only going to escalate further than today’s level. Diseases caused by antibiotic resistant bacteria is responsible for at least 700,000 deaths around the world annually (63,000 of those deaths are from babies in India alone).

By 2050, antibiotic resistance will cause 10 million deaths annually and cost the world $100 trillion.

Cultured chicken meat by Memphis Meats

Considering that cultured meat (or any other cellular agriculture product) would not be fed the large amounts of antibiotics given to animals, cellular agriculture would have significant health implications. By cutting out livestock, there will be no E. coli or salmonella (or other bacterial contaminations) from raising livestock that could contaminate the meat or other animal products if produced in a sterile environment. Plant-based meat alternatives would also not require all the antibiotics fed to animals.

Conclusion

McKenna’s Big Chicken tells many stories. It’s a story about science and farming, about politics and policy, and, beyond all, a story about profits. In a TedTalk, McKenna said that “evolution always wins.” And she’s right. Antibiotic resistance is a problem that will continue to grow into a larger one. Responsible use of antibiotics is imperative to ensure that antibiotics that still work continue to treat diseases.

Disclaimer:

I would like to thank National Geographic for sending me this book. I requested McKenna’s Big Chicken from them and they kindly sent me a copy to review. One of the main arguments in favour of cellular agriculture is the absence of antibiotics, and Big Chicken highlights why that is such an important aspect for both individual and public health.