Blame Henry Ford for Deadly Superbugs

The strange journey from soybean-fueled cars to antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

Henry Ford (right) unveiling his handmade plastic automobile in Dearborn, Michigan, in August 1941. The body's plastic was made from soybean and fibers such as field straw, hemp, and flax. The car ran on gasoline and ethanol from corn.

Photographer: AP Photo

America has too much, and it’s killing us.

There are too many pesticides sprayed on too much corn and soy, fed to too many farm animals. With too many antibiotics, the animals grow too fast in too little space.

The modern U.S. food system’s abundance problem has led to a scarcity problem. Fewer breeds of livestock and crops—their genetics controlled by a handful of companies—and the overuse of antibiotics leave consumers with scant choice and doctors with fewer and fewer drugs left to fight the superbugs we’ve created.

How on earth did we get here? Henry Ford and the soybean.

Two books out this month paint a fascinating picture of how government and industry helped consumers and farmers in the short term but left Americans today with a world of ills. This Blessed Earth: A Year in the Life of an American Family Farm (W.W. Norton & Co.), by Ted Genoways, follows a multi-generational farm family in Nebraska from harvest to harvest, flashing back to the pivotal moments in history that paved the way there. Maryn McKenna’s Big Chicken (National Geographic) shows how adding antibiotics to chicken feed after World War II brought cheap protein to the table and a fast-growing public health crisis—antibiotic resistance—to the world.

Soy is now an integral part of the U.S. food system, but its beginnings had nothing to do with food. Soybeans were grown as a possible answer to the looming petroleum shortage of the early 20th century. And their biggest initial booster wasn’t a food company but, as Genoways lays it out, Ford.

In the late 1920s, America was overrun with grain, leaving farmers wondering what they would do with it all. A piece titled “Wanted: Machines to Eat Up Our Crop Surplus” appeared in the magazine Farm & Fireside in 1927, suggesting that perhaps the government could fund research into turning those grains into industrial products.

Ford liked the idea. He relied on petroleum both to build his cars and to power them. And the plan, if enacted, could create more demand for his farm equipment, the same gear that helped create the grain glut in the first place. He just didn’t want government driving this economic overhaul. He wanted to do it himself.

Ford expanded his company’s agricultural laboratory and directly oversaw new efforts to turn plants into plastics and biofuels. After the 1929 stock market crash, the U.S. Department of Agriculture looked to the world to find new crops to save farmers. From China, William J. Morse, a USDA scientist long interested in soybeans, collected thousands of varieties for U.S. researchers. Ford got wind of the project and instructed his team to take a closer look. They found that the soybean could produce lubricants and plastics, as well as oils and a high-protein meal. 

That’s when things started moving really fast for the multi-talented bean. In 1931, Ford poured a million dollars into research and stopped looking at those other, disappointing plants. The following spring, 300 varieties were being cultivated on 8,000 acres in rural Michigan; the year after that, some 12,000 acres.

Soon farmers were planting 35,000 acres of soybeans. Ford was buying it all, and selling it, too—he offered soy-based baked goods and ice cream at the company commissary and, while hosting an American Soybean Association convention, said he could see a time when cars “could be made from by-products of agriculture.”  

The Ford machine churned up a booming market in soy for the American farmer. In the summer of 1934, during a major drought that killed corn and wheat, soy prevailed against linseed and canola, with a harvest of 23 million bushels. The next year it reached about 70 million bushels; by decade’s end, nearly 100 million bushels were harvested. During the worst of the Great Depression, Genoways writes, soybeans were bringing in more money for farmers than barley and rye. 

It was too good to last. In 1938, a giant oil reserve was discovered in Saudi Arabia, and the need for cheap alternatives to petroleum all but vanished.

Luckily, that drought-driven decline in the harvest of grains gave soybeans new life as livestock feed. That brought its own challenges, as McKenna explains in her book about the rise of antibiotics in agriculture. While the demand for protein to feed American soldiers in World War II helped nearly triple chicken production, the industry quickly lost its guaranteed market at the end of the war and found itself with more birds than it could sell. Suddenly, the industry’s feed supply, fishmeal, was too expensive.

Soybeans weren’t. The problem was that, with soy as feed, the birds weren’t growing as fast. “People talked about needing to add a nutritious boost,” McKenna writes, “an ‘animal protein factor.’ ”

At Merck & Co., researchers had discovered that a byproduct of making the streptomycin antibiotic, which began with manured soil as a raw material, could be fed to chickens to fatten them up. In 1948, a rival company, Lederle Laboratories, was doing the same with a byproduct of one of its own antibiotics, Aureomycin. 

Meanwhile, the industry was moving chickens indoors, their lives now bereft of such natural foods as insects, not to mention sunlight. The antibiotics helped smooth this transition, actually altering the animals’ metabolism to help them adjust to their new, unnatural life. Lederle announced its results in 1950, and the industry was all in. By 1955, American farmers were giving animals nearly half a million pounds of antibiotics a year.

Some had been raising the alarm about frightening consequences. As early as 1945, Alexander Fleming, who discovered penicillin, the first antibiotic, was quoted in the New York Times warning that using doses that were too low to wipe out infections, as was common practice in agriculture, could lead to the evolution of more resistant microbes.

By 1955, this was already happening. A penicillin-resistant strain of the staphylococcus bacterium that traveled from Australia to the U.S. had infected more than 5,000 mothers and their newborns near Seattle. Lederle’s own veterinarians, McKenna reports, had issued warnings that sales of Aureomycin as a growth promoter could lead to antibiotic resistance.

Today, about 80 percent of the antibiotics produced in the U.S. are fed to farm animals, and the United Nations has called antibiotic resistance “one of the biggest threats to global health.” In 2016, a report commissioned by former British Prime Minister David Cameron estimated that in 2014 there were more than 700,000 deaths per year from bacterial infections caused by superbugsAntibiotic-resistant bacteria can travel not just in food but in water supplies, dust and even on clothing, yet the FDA has lagged behind European regulators in getting antibiotic use on farms under control.

“The issue of antibiotic resistance is very complex,” the National Chicken Council said in a statement responding to Big Chicken. “We know antibiotic resistance can emerge in animals and can transfer to humans, sometimes making them sick. The question is: How does this happen?”

The NCC lists several preventive measures producers take today, including the FDA drug review process and monitoring and surveillance programs. At the same time, it rejects the central tenet of McKenna’s book, saying the transfer of resistance from animals to humans “does not happen in measurable amounts, if at all,” although it is a widely held scientific finding.

Nearly all the chickens eaten in the world now have genetics controlled by two companies, Aviagen Inc. and Tyson Foods Inc.’s Cobb-Vantress. As Genoways points out, the genetics of the livestock feed supply—corn and soy—are similarly homogeneous. Ninety percent of the crops in the soybean market and nearly three-quarters of those in the corn market are “Roundup Ready,” as Monsanto Co. and DuPont Pioneer have dubbed them, genetically modified to be resistant to the widely used pesticide Roundup. That lets farmers apply the pesticide heavily—breeding pesticide-resistant weeds.

In the face of all this, McKenna is remarkably hopeful. Consumers are changing the direction of how food is produced. Perdue Farms Inc.’s chicken flock is now 95 percent antibiotic-free. In 2014, Chick-fil-A Inc. committed itself to relying on an antibiotic-free chicken supply within five years. Bell & Evans Holding LLC, a private poultry producer using such feed additives as oregano oil and fennel instead of antibiotics, processes about 60 million organic and non-organic birds annually. In France, the Label Rouge, a seal reserved for heritage chickens raised under strict space and outdoor-access requirements, has become very popular.

“Despite all the bad stuff that has happened, we got a consumer movement that is much more activist,” McKenna said in an interview. “It made it safe for companies to act the way Perdue and Chick-fil-A did.” 

Genoways is less optimistic about the consumer’s ability to push agriculture in a healthier direction.

“It’s always easy for us to say that we want farming to be more sustainable, and in reality, farmers themselves want that,” he said. “But if we really want things to change, we need to elect people who know about this stuff, care about it, and make things better for the farmers and the consumer at the same time. Progress is really fragile, and a lot of times the negative impacts are long-lasting, while the improvements are short-lived.”