Skip to main content
Premium Trial:

Request an Annual Quote

The UN Takes on Antibiotics

In the Scientific American guest blog this week, Council on Foreign Relations Senior Fellow for Global Health Laurie Garrett reports that the UN General Assembly is planning a special session to address the overuse of antibiotics and their effect on the evolution of superbugs.

The Assembly, which convened its 71st session last week, will conduct a high-level meeting tomorrow to look at ways in which antibiotic use could be reduced, whether in treating illness or in routine use in livestock.

"The Earth has its own microbiome, representing about a third of the weight of all biological material and life forms on the planet. And it is every bit as indispensable to the planet as your microbiome is to your personal health," Garrett writes. "So it should be with some considerable alarm that we consider the killing potential manmade antibiotics have for Earth's microbiome."

Rampant use of antibiotics in animals is especially harmful. About 80 percent of antibiotics used today are used for livestock, not human health. "Researchers estimate that for every 2.2 pounds of cattle weight, 45 milligrams of antibiotics were used as growth promoters; for chickens that's 148 milligrams per 2.2 pounds and for pigs it's a whopping 172," Garrett says. "On a global scale that translates into about 63,000 tons of antibiotics used in agriculture in 2010, which researchers predict will soar to 106,000 tons over the next 14 years. Today the United States, alone, uses 25 million pounds of antibiotic products on livestock every year."

And because of this, she adds, humans are "filling the world" with pathogens that are or become completely resistant to any kind of treatment, which in turn adversely affect wild animal populations as well. "Wildlife all over the world, from the depths of the seas to the Himalayas, are developing antibiotic-resistant bacterial diseases," according to Garrett.

As UN members meet to discuss these issues, she adds, they must realize that this is a planet-wide problem, and that even the decisions of one cattle farmer or doctor prescribing antibiotics for a viral infection could well affect the future of the Earth.