Antibiotic usage in livestock is down for the first time in years.

Antibiotic usage in livestock is down for the first time in years.

First, the good news.

According to a recent report from the Federal Drug Administration (FDA), there was a 10% decrease in 2016 in domestic sales and distribution of antibiotics for “food-producing animals.” As NPR reports, this is likely due to combined pressure from both the public and the FDA.

You may have always been on the antibiotic-free train, or you might have just learned about it in recent years, but here’s a quick explainer for those who don’t have deep knowledge of antibiotic usage in agriculture and how it relates to human health:

  • Antibiotics are often used in mass-produced meat, eggs, and dairy, because when you put a bunch of animals in a small space together and one gets sick, they all get sick (duh). Antibiotics are not just used for treatment, though: they’re also often used on livestock preventively.
  • Bacteria can form antibiotic resistance through mutation and/or information sharing. To expand a bit on this (because microbiology is fascinating), one bacteria might have a natural resistance to an antibiotic’s mechanism, or might excrete an enzyme that alters/inactivates an antibiotic, or might be able to somehow block it out completely, or pump it out of its own system. Regardless of how it does it, the mutant bacterium is then able to multiply and replace all the antibiotic-susceptible bacteria that were killed. Depending on what gene allows for this resistance, a bacterium might also be able to share the genetic information that makes it immune with other bacteria, thus sharing the resistance. This horizontal information sharing can even occur across different species of bacteria.
  • The overuse of antibiotics tends to initiate an arms race: the more we use antibiotics, the more bacteria evolve to be resistant, etc., which is how we end up with superbugs that kill at least 23,000 people a year, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
  • We’ve known since the 80s that the more we use antibiotics in agriculture, the less effective these drugs become in human medicine, but the livestock industry has consistently argued that this isn’t a significant issue for human health. According to NIH’s 2012 “Review of Antibiotic Use in Food Animals,” however, “the potential threat to human health resulting from inappropriate antibiotic use in food animals is significant, as pathogenic-resistant organisms propagated in these livestock are poised to enter the food supply and could be widely disseminated in food products.”

The FDA first started creating these antimicrobial summary reports in 2009, and this is the first year the sales have gone down year-over-year. That said, the quantity of antibiotics being sold for agricultural purposes is still higher than in 2009.

Who’s really fighting those California wildfires?

As Santa Ana winds blow through southern California, wildfire is spreading like… well… wildfire. This week’s fires are some of the worst ever seen in this part of the state, covering more than 225,000 acres, destroying more than 800 homes and threatening many thousands more, forcing evacuation of nearly 100,000 people (as of Sunday). These fires are becoming an issue in the state year-round due to the combination of drought and wind.

What many people don’t know is that about one third of the state’s wildland firefighting forces are prison inmates. Containing the blaze in shifts up to 72 straight hours after participating in a two-week training program, inmates opt into the firefighting program to earn credit toward early parole. They earn just $2 per day in camp, and $1 per hour on the fire line. Prison labor in exchange for such low wages has often been compared to slave-era labor practices, but this job is particularly dangerous. In an interview with PBS, the director of ACLU’s National Prison Project, David Fathi, said that while voluntary jobs in prison can lower the chance of recidivism (individuals returning to the prison system after release), “little in prison is truly voluntary… it’s hard for most people to understand the pervasively and inherently coercive nature of the prison environment.” While no one is technically involuntarily assigned to the front lines of wildfires, there are “disciplinary infractions,” including extended prison time, for those who refuse their “suggested” assignments.

China is beginning to enact its ban on imported plastic waste. 

Back in July, China announced its plan to ban imports of certain recyclable waste for quality-control purposes. For decades, China has been a major player in global recycling, importing recyclable plastic waste from more developed parts of the world like the US, the EU, and Japan, and this recent turn has left US waste companies to handle the so-called-recyclables – which, actually, in many cases, is dirty and potentially hazardous waste – that China is no longer accepting. Though the ban doesn’t technically take effect until 2018, plastics are already piling up. In an NPR interview with folks from Rogue Waste Systems in southern Oregon, this ‘recyclable’ waste “just keeps coming and coming and coming.”

Part of the problem here is the herculean sorting effort necessary for recycling – many municipalities collect all types of recycling mixed together, which allows for serious contamination and reduced material quality. We might be able to address this problem with help from robot sorters, which could allow the US to “make its recycling clean enough for China,” but for now, many materials we’ve previously been able to recycle (such as water bottles, plastic bags, and PVC) are destined for landfills.

Geoengineering: lucrative, potentially dangerous, and apparently bipartisan.

Last Thursday, Congressmen Jerry McNerney (D-CA) introduced some environmentally-contested legislation into the House. If you missed that little blurb I wrote a few weeks ago, geoengineering is a proposed method of manipulating environmental processes with the overall goal of counteracting the effects of global warming (rather than addressing their root causes). Current proposed tactics include spraying aerosols in the atmosphere to reflect sunlight back out into space, and attempting to capture atmospheric CO2.

This new bill follows the November 8 committee meeting in which Lamar Smith (R-TX), a long-time climate-change rejecter, encouraged the implementation of geoengineering rather than “forcing unworkable and costly government mandates,” a direct call-out of the democratic plan to transition from natural gas to renewables.

Rep. McNerney’s proposes further geoengineering research and development in his bill, arguing that “even if human beings were to cease all greenhouse gas emissions tomorrow, significant atmospheric change has already been set in motion and will continue for generations to come.” While this is true, let’s all hope scientists do their research before implementing these tactics, as climate change itself is the result of a lack of human forethought.

Earth’s hum

My metaphysical, new-age hippie mom might hate me for putting her on blast, but for my whole life she’s consistently told me everything has a vibration. As it turns out, she might be right, in a way. According to a new study published in November of this year, European researchers have used ocean-bottom seismometers to measure the earth’s hum. Though researchers have had awareness of this ‘hum’ since the 50s, this is the first time seismic stations have measured it from the bottom of the ocean “during periods without earthquakes.” According to National Geographic, “The planet’s vibration, or record of ‘free oscillations,’ hovers between 2.9 and 4.5 millihertz,” a frequency way out of range of human hearing.

header image: "cattle feeding," oregon state university / flickr

The Trump administration is beginning to rescind rules around offshore drilling and fracking.

The Trump administration is beginning to rescind rules around offshore drilling and fracking.

The new tax bill is a nightmare for the environment.

The new tax bill is a nightmare for the environment.