Everyone was expecting Laudato Si’ – the second encyclical of Pope Francis – to carry a strongly pro-environmental message. Less expected was its strong note of techno-scepticism. While acknowledging the achievements of human ingenuity, there are several warnings against technological hubris. For instance:
“Technology, which, linked to business interests, is presented as the only way of solving… problems, in fact proves incapable of seeing the mysterious network of relations between things and so sometimes solves one problem only to create others.”
Though not mentioned directly in the encyclical, there is perhaps no better example of this than our use and misuse of antibiotics. These vital medicines have saved countless millions of lives – yet, through over-prescription and other irresponsible practices, we are creating the conditions for the development of antibiotic resistance in life-threatening microbes.
In the same week that Laudato Si’ was published, the Guardian revealed that a strain of resistant MRSA had been found in pork products sold in Britain:
“Pork sold by several leading British supermarkets has been found to be contaminated with a strain of the superbug MRSA that is linked to the overuse of powerful antibiotics on factory farms, a Guardian investigation has revealed… Of the 100 packets of pork chops, bacon and gammon tested by the Guardian, nine – eight Danish and one Irish – were found to have been infected with CC398.”
This is not the same strain of resistant MRSA that has presented such a threat in our hospitals, but according to a further briefing in the Guardian, CC398 does have the potential to harm human health:
“Two thirds of Denmark’s pig farms are currently infected with CC398, where it is spreading rapidly: 648 people were infected with CC398 in 2013; in 2014, 1,271 people contracted the bug. Of those infected two people died as a result of the infection, and many suffered serious blood poisoning.”
If we want to prevent what has happened in Denmark from happening here, we need to act:
“…almost half of all antibiotics used in the UK are administered to farm animals. In the UK, antibiotics can only be legally supplied to farms with a prescription from a vet to treat, and in some cases prevent, illness, but there are several problems with the way animal antibiotics are regulated.”
In practice, the use of antibiotics on farm animals can be as unrestrained as it is among humans, if not more so:
“Antibiotics are often administered as medicated feedstuffs… meaning the drugs can be disseminated widely rather than only to sick animals.”
While the EU has banned use of antibiotics as growth promoters, the intensive livestock industry insists that it can’t do without the prophylactic and therapeutic use of these drugs. But, given the risk to human health and the impact on animal welfare, why rear livestock intensively at all?
The answer, of course, is to satisfy consumer demand for cheap meat: cheap enough to buy as fast food, cheap enough to throw away half-eaten.
Depending on what kind of conservative you are, you may have more sympathy for Mae West (“too much of a good thing is wonderful”) than Pope Francis (“the emptier a person’s heart is, the more he or she needs to buy, own and consume”). But either way, we must save our antibiotics.