Let’s talk science for a while.
Humans. Sometimes they’re incredibly brilliant, other times incredulously stupid. All humans, like all other species, are evolutionarily inclined to protect themselves. This is true for all processes of human life – from survival mechanisms like eating and hunting to making weapons, and in the modern age, engaging in wars to defend our ideas and beliefs, those non-tangible extensions of ourselves.
However, I am a microbiologist, and not a war theorist. The protection I want to talk about is against things too small for us to see – microbes and pathogens – and how our forms of protection over the past, say, fifty years or so, have actually hurt us and exacerbated the (perceived) problem.
Let’s talk first about cleanliness. I am an organized human, sometimes in a nearly-compulsive way. This post is not to talk about neatness, just what we use to keep things neat, shiny, and often pathogen- and allergen-free – cleaning supplies. By using cleaning supplies to eliminate these particles from our living spaces, we’re also limiting our exposure to them, especially in childhood. So while that might avoid making us sick as kids, there is a theory called the Hygiene Hypothesis claiming that it’s the cause of the increasing rates of adult-onset asthma and allergic diseases. Once we leave the clean bubble (often moving away from home for the first time), we have increased exposure to everyday substances and microbes that our bodies should know how to deal with but don’t. And so we get sick.
If you’ve ever brought up food, sustainability, or the union of the two with me, you’ll know that I’m a vegetarian for environmental reasons, and I vehemently oppose the industrial food system, particularly when it comes to meat production. But everyone should oppose the current dominant food system in the US simply on the basis of health. This is a big statement, and I can prove it.
It goes back to that same idea of protecting ourselves. In order to prevent potentially-dangerous microbes from living in industrial animals (and eventually our bodies), those animals are fed massive amounts of antibiotics. (These antibiotics have previously also shown to work like growth hormones to create bigger animals faster, but that’s not what I’ll be focusing on.) For a while these antibiotics worked, and sometimes they still work. But after nearly a half century and thousands and millions of bacterial regenerative cycles (a happy E. coli cell doubles every 20 minutes), a great many of these bacteria have gained drug resistance.
Drug resistance – when a chemical intended to have a certain effect (typically to kill) is unable to do its job. This can and does happen in plants and bacteria and viruses frequently. Some strains come with resistance to certain chemicals – TB is resistant to beta-lactams because it produces beta-lactamase, an enzyme that deactivates them – but the vast majority are acquired over time. And how is resistance acquired? By repeated exposure to the chemical(s) in question. So the cows and chickens and all other animals in factory farms receiving dosages of antibiotics over their short lifetimes? They are becoming homes and breeding grounds for extremely drug-resistant pathogens that we don’t know how to treat, putting you as the consumer at risk. By farms trying to protect consumers (and their economic interests), they’ve created a problem we don’t know the answer to. And that, to be honest, is really freaking scary.
Humans always have and always will get sick from their environments. I know this quite well – my immune system seems particularly susceptible to the multitude of pathogens having a ball at the petri dish known as The School on the Hill. We will get sick. But our bodies are made to recover. We perceive getting sick to be a problem – and yeah, it feels pretty sucky – but it actually makes us stronger. By trying to prevent ourselves from being sick in the first place, we weaken our innate protections. And as humans become more advanced in the prevention, the organisms trying to attack us advance as well, and capitalize on our weakened systems inside of our chemically-produced bubbles.
Great job, humans. By following evolutionary instincts you’ve created more issues for yourselves, with at least one of two I mentioned having the potential to kill us all. That was probably a pretty stupid move. Let’s hope we find a brilliant way to come out of this one.
Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser
Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver
RESISTANCE documentary (on Netflix) (the best documentary on this subject I’ve seen, and maybe the best-made documentary I’ve ever seen)