In this seemingly endless election campaign you’d think that all the issues would get a proper hearing. But when YouGov asked the public about this, they found that, on balance, most issues hadn’t been discussed enough – only one issue was thought to have got too much attention: Scotland.
At the other end of the scale was the environment – with 48 per cent of respondents wanting to hear more about the subject. So why do the parties have so little to say about it?
Partly the problem is one of scale – and especially timescale. The really big issues don’t lend themselves to simplistic soundbite politics. The prime example is the biggest of all the environmental issues, climate change. Phrases like ‘by the end of the century’ just don’t compute with the political machine. If it isn’t happening by the end of decade (and preferably much sooner), then the campaign consultants don’t want to know.
Man-made climate change is happening right now, but for most of us in the western world the specific impacts are still too small and too ambiguous to influence political priorities. Furthermore, things may stay that way for decades to come. As with financial debt, we should be conscious of the environmental liabilities we’re bequeathing to future generations – but, sadly, that’s not always the way we think, let alone act.
There’s another environmental issue – one just as global as climate change – but whose worst consequences may be felt much sooner: antibiotic resistance. The spread of resistance to a growing list of antibiotics is already happening and if it continues unchecked then the impact on everyday life will be profound.
Furthermore, this is a catastrophe we’re bringing down ourselves through the blatantly irresponsible misuse of these precious medicines. A prime example is the role of antibiotics in intensive agriculture – the subject of must-read article by Katie Palmer for Wired:
“Animals in the United States use at least three times more antibiotics than humans, but usually at subtherapeutic levels, to promote growth or to prevent disease from spreading through crowded facilities. Subtherapeutic dosing—exposing bacteria to a drug but not quite killing it—turns out to be a very good way to create resistant bugs. That which does not kill them does indeed make them stronger.”
The evidence for a link to human health is strong:
“Scientists have consistently found drug-resistant bacteria in the air and water near concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs, and in the nasal passages of livestock workers. Multiple studies have used genetic fingerprinting to link bacterial strains found in antibiotic-fed animals to the humans who work with them, and antibiotics themselves can end up in food, increasing human exposure and the likelihood of resistance. Resistant bacteria from food animals are definitely colonizing, infecting, and killing humans.”
Palmer reports that some of the biggest food processing companies in the US are “getting out of antibiotic use.” This is good news, but is it too little, too late?
Disturbingly, vital research is being frustrated:
“The best way to prove and quantify the connection between drug-resistant bugs in animals and humans would be to take bacterial samples from food animals and people and subject them to whole-genome phylogenetic analyses. That doesn’t happen in the US… because the big-food companies would have to grant access to their animals…”
Even if we do eliminate the use of antibiotics from agriculture, the problem of microbial resistance can manifest itself in other ways:
“In Denmark, for example, where antibiotics in livestock are outlawed, MRSA is still spreading like wildfire among pigs. How? Farmers are supplementing pig feed with zinc, but bacteria present in those pigs have DNA coding for methicillin resistance next door to a zinc resistance gene.”
As with climate change, there are no easy solutions and the uncertainties are abundant. As is also the case with climate change, there are those – including some with the effrontery to call themselves conservative – who regard this as an excuse for complacency.