Raise the Cost of Cultivating Supergerms

Chicks feed in a broiler house on the outskirts of Hyderabad, India.

Photographer: Dhiraj Singh/Bloomberg

Antibiotics meant for humans have no place on the farm. When they are fed routinely to chickens, pigs and cows -- to help them grow or fend off infections -- germs in animals can easily become resistant, and ultimately threaten people, too.

It's a threat long recognized by Europe, the U.S. and Canada, where the use of antibiotics to promote growth in livestock has already or will soon be banned. Unfortunately, this progress is endangered by the ongoing, even expanding, antibiotics free-for-all taking place in countries where agriculture is less regulated.

A Bloomberg News investigation of 14 chicken farms in India has found extensive use of vital medical antibiotics in the birds' food and water, starting just days after chicks are hatched. India does not restrict the use of antibiotics on farms, and the government collects no data on how the drugs are used.

QuickTake Antibiotic Resistance

The practice is hazardous not only for India and other countries where drugs are overused in agriculture, such as China and Brazil. The rise of drug-resistant germs threatens the health of man and beast everywhere.

Ideally, all countries would restrict the use of medically necessary drugs for growth promotion in agriculture and require veterinary oversight of antibiotics fed to farm animals. (The Netherlands has gone even further, banning antibiotics also for disease prevention and setting targets for lowering drug use; partly as a result, antibiotic use has fallen by 60 percent.) This takes political will and strong regulation.

Things are harder in India, where rules on agricultural drug use are vague to nonexistent, the drugs are readily available over the counter, and too few regulators or vets are paying attention. Changing practices will take extraordinary effort and public pressure of the kind that consumers and fast-food companies have applied in the West. And it may require investment by wealthier countries in improved agricultural practices and stronger oversight.

There's one other thing that could help in all countries, rich and poor: a tax on animal antibiotics. If the price of these drugs reflected the medical cost of overuse, more than just farm animals would benefit.

Farmers would have a financial incentive to make sure animal enclosures are protected and well-ventilated, so animals could grow and stay healthy without the drugs; to administer vaccines, rather than antibiotics; and to use better tools to diagnose infections, so that sick animals could be separated from the rest before illness spreads.

An added benefit from a user fee would be that it raises revenue, giving governments an incentive to take action. Finally, less antibiotic use would mean less antibiotic-resistant disease.

If nothing is done, global use of antibiotics on farms stands to increase by two-thirds by 2030. Meanwhile, the continuing rise of drug-resistant infections worldwide could cause 10 million extra deaths a year by 2050 and cost the global economy $100 trillion. Stakes that high should push every country to act.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.