Of Man, Pigs, and Bacteria


Those brave few who find their way to this blog know that I have no truck with most of the columnists writing for the New York Times. But Nicholas Kristof, writing in today’s New York Times, reports on the rampant overuse of antibiotics in commercial pig-farming operations.

It is both terrifying and outrageous. To wit:

We don’t add antibiotics to baby food and Cocoa Puffs so that children get fewer ear infections. That’s because we understand that the overuse of antibiotics is already creating “superbugs” resistant to medication…

Yet we continue to allow agribusiness companies to add antibiotics to animal feed so that piglets stay healthy and don’t get ear infections. Seventy percent of all antibiotics in the United States go to healthy livestock, according to a careful study by the Union of Concerned Scientists — and that’s one reason we’re seeing the rise of pathogens that defy antibiotics…

Yet the central problem here isn’t pigs, it’s humans. Unlike Europe and even South Korea, the United States still bows to agribusiness interests by permitting the nontherapeutic use of antibiotics in animal feed. That’s unconscionable.

The peer-reviewed Medical Clinics of North America concluded last year that antibiotics in livestock feed were “a major component” in the rise in antibiotic resistance. The article said that more antibiotics were fed to animals in North Carolina alone than were administered to the nation’s entire human population.

“We don’t give antibiotics to healthy humans,” said Robert Martin, who led a Pew Commission on industrial farming that examined antibiotic use. “So why give them to healthy animals just so we can keep them in crowded and unsanitary conditions?”

The answer is simple: politics.

Read it all. This is behavior that is so short-sighted, so selfish, and so wrong as to beggar description.

Here’s why:

Approximately 80 percent of the atmosphere is nitrogen gas (N2). Unfortunately, N2 is unusable by most living organisms. Plants, animals and microorganisms can die of nitrogen deficiency, surrounded by N2 they cannot use. All organisms use the ammonia (NH3) form of nitrogen to manufacture amino acids, proteins, nucleic acids and other nitrogen-containing components necessary for life. Biological nitrogen fixation is the process that changes inert N2 to biologically useful NH3. This process is mediated in nature only by bacteria.

Did you get that last bit? Without bacteria, all life forms on this planet would not be able to process Nitrogen. Without bacteria, all life forms on this planet will die.

More detail here. And this explains it nicely, with some pictures…

Nitrogen comprises 78.08 % of the atmosphere making it the largest constituent of the gaseous envelope that surrounds the Earth. Nitrogen is important in the make up of organic molecules like proteins. Unfortunately, nitrogen is inaccessible to most living organisms. Nitrogen must be “fixed” by soil bacteria living in association with the roots of particular plant like legumes, clover, alfalfa, soybeans, peas, peanuts, and beans. Living on nodules around the roots of legumes, the bacteria chemically combine nitrogen in the air to form nitrates (NO3) and ammonia (NH3) making it available to plants. Organisms that feed on the plants ingest the nitrogen and release it in organic wastes. Denitrifying bacteria frees the nitrogen from the wastes returning it to the atmosphere.

Nitrogen Cycle


We live in, and are part of, an enormously complex eco-system. Yes, there are many levels of redundancy built into our biological systems, but there are also pieces of Nature’s plan that provide important functions which can be easily destroyed if Man continues to act stupidly and selfishly. I’m not a tree hugger, and I’m not an environmental wacko, but we are playing with fire when it comes to antibiotics…..


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