I suspect we think of large-scale confinement agriculture as a uniquely American issue. Possibly that’s because growth-promoter antibiotic use, which makes meat-raising efficient, originated in the United States; more likely, it’s because some of the largest firms in that sector — Smithfield and Tyson, for example — are US-based.
But public and private research efforts (including the US Department of Agriculture, the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization and the Pew Charitable Trusts) have documented that intensive livestock-raising is increasing in emerging economies such as India and China; as incomes rise, demand for meat does too.
A paper published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences demonstrates that the unintended consequences of confinement agriculture are occurring in those countries as well. A multi-national team of researchers from Michigan State University and two campuses of the Chinese Academy of Sciences found — well, I can’t put it better than their paper’s title does: “Diverse and abundant antibiotic resistance genes in Chinese swine farms.”
If you’ve followed news about food in China (at this blog or elsewhere), you’ll have seen that regulation of food safety is failing under the twin pressures of needing to produce a lot of protein and wanting to make a lot of money. (I think of food in China as being where the United States was before Upton Sinclair came along.)
This lack of regulation is as true for agricultural antibiotic use as it is for other aspects of food production. China is both the largest producer and the largest consumer of antibiotics in the world, and it is putting almost half of its annual production into agriculture: about 96 million kilograms, which by my math (using the newest ADUFA numbers in my last post) works out to about 7 times what the US is using each year.