Constant readers, we’ve talked frequently about the emerging recognition that the enormous use of antibiotics in agriculture is fueling the development of resistance, both directly in the case of specific organisms such as MRSA ST-398, and indirectly in that it pushes the evolution of resistance factors that bacteria then trade amongst themselves. (For a superb overview of the antibiotics/agriculture problem, see this article in the June issue of the Johns Hopkins (University) Magazine. Hopkins is the home of the Center for a Livable Future, which is doing excellent research on this issue.)
And we’ve also talked about the related issue of antibiotic residues elsewhere in the environment, in sewage and wastewater supplies.
But here’s a whole new peril: Antibiotic resistance generated by ethanol production, that vast corn-based industry that has been pitched as a homegrown biofuel alternative to foreign oil.
Food-policy blogger (and farmer and chef) Tom Philpott has been doggedly following this story for more than a year at Grist. And in a study published last month the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy brings some important numbers-based analysis. The gist of the problem is this:
- Ethanol production uses yeast to convert corn starches into alcohol
- Bacterial contamination, usually by lactobacilli, can hijack the process and covert the starches to unusable lactic acid instead
- To prevent that from happening, ethanol producers dose their corn mash with antibiotics
- Because contamination is frequent and persistent, producers use increasing amounts of antibiotics to overcome bacteria that have become resistant
- After ethanol is extracted, the mash residue remains tainted with those resistant bacteria and with antibiotics — including penicillin, erythromycin and streptogramin (an analog of the human antibiotic Synercid)
- The dried mash residue is sold to farmers as livestock feed, exposing livestock to resistant bacteria and dosing them with unsuspected additional antibiotics as well.
If there is any good news in this, it is that (according to the IATP), some of the faltering ethanol industry is aware of the problem and working on it, with about 45% of plants now working on non-antibiotic alternatives. The bad news is that 55% — more than 90 of the 170 ethanol facilities in the United States — are not.