Pharming in the Crosshairs

Published on: 14:23PM Jun 30, 2009

Many people love the latest gadgets and techno-goodies:  smart phones, robot vacuum cleaners, internet-linked DVD players, cars with cameras in the back, and of course, the ubiquitous IPod.  When six year olds send emails to their 66 year-old grandparents (and when Twitter and YouTube are used to document protests in an otherwise repressed and repressive Iran), you know the times have changed and a new normal has been established.


Isn’t it remarkable, then, that so many, or at least such a vocal group, of activists object to letting farmers use the latest technologies.  And no, I’m not talking about IPhones and GPS-targeted fertilizer application, but technologies that improve the efficiency of meat and milk production. 


The latest salvo in this anti-progress campaign has been launched, in coordinated fashion, by various pressure groups opposed to the use of antibiotics in livestock.  The Pew Commission on Human Health and Industrial Farming has a series of poster-sized ads up in the Washington area, targeting lawmakers and their staffs about the supposed ills of antimicrobials on farms. 


But of course, they say the problems aren’t with “farms,” as long as you farm like Old McDonald:  “here a pig, here a chick, here a cow.”  No, the problem is “industrial farms,” the ones not designed to accommodate a menagerie of anthropomorphized critters.  Never mind that any systemic use of livestock these days, even by technophobic Amish standards, basically qualifies as industrial farming, i.e. it’s a system designed to provide optimal care and maximal output of the animal’s potential.


Toward that end, some farms use some forms of pharmaceuticals that either prevent disease, or treat it.  In dairy, most of the use of antibiotics is to treat active infections, or the use of dry cow treatments that help prevent the recurrence of mastitis.  In other livestock sectors, antimicrobials are used to improve feed efficiencies.  It’s clear that these products reduce the environmental impact of food production, and benefit consumers with more affordable products.


The critics point to the spread of diseases like MRSA, and suggest that these bugs are the bastard lovechild of factory farming addicted to drugs.  There’s scant evidence of that, of course, but it makes for good headlines and compelling posters.


Like any other form of technology, products that treat and defend against disease are simply tools, that can either be used responsibility, or not.  The profligate and irresponsible use of any drug is not defensible, but neither is opposing the responsible use of approved products that have discernible benefits to people. 


Much of the gist of the claims by the anti-Pharm crowd has much less to do with medical science, and much more to do with social scientists trying to find new ways to regulate farming, food marketing, and the environment.  The anti- antibiotic campaign is just one more arrow in the quiver, but it’s not the only one, or the last one.


We’ve seen an eruption of marketing claims recently by companies that eschew the use of antibiotics and related products (although as I mentioned in one of my favorite posts from last year, such claims aren’t always what they’re cracked up to be).  Consumers will decide what foods they prefer, and the market will provide them.  But food marketing companies that use sophisticated technologies to track and market their products ought to be careful about denying otherwise useful tools to the farmers that supply those companies.