Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Leland Stillman on Agricultural Policy and Antibiotic Resistance

Classmate Leland Stillman has kindly shared with us his undergrad honor's thesis, which is highly relevant to our discussions of agricultural policy and antibiotic resistance. I've included his email below:


I have pasted in my abstract, followed by my conclusion, and preceding both, a link to the paper itself. I also must recommend the first page or so of my introduction, which to this day I find screamingly funny, and in particular the first two lines: "In 1522 Ferdinand Magellan completed his first circumnavigation of the world, proving to the Western world that the earth was in fact round. Though perhaps few noted it at the time, this implied a disturbing corollary; the resources of the earth were limited. "

Environmental factors play a major part in human health. Environmental pollutants are often as poisonous to humans as the environment. Presently, much time and energy is dedicated to keeping pollution apart from human society, with varying success. But as global population densities rise, current levels of pollution will become inviable due to public health concerns. An emergent example of this is in the concentration of livestock operations. Recent changes in the structure of U.S. hog farming have resulted in an industry-wide shift from small or medium production farms to high capacity, “concentrated animal feeding operations” (CAFO). These operations have become the subject of intense debate due to air and water pollution, including odor, that can be nuisances or outright public health threats to their communities. In addition, the quantities of animal wastes produced and seasonally sequestered by these operations can be accidentally released via natural processes like floods, often with catastrophic results. Finally, the animals live in conditions of high stress and poor hygiene that are conducive to disease and so most operations therefore feed their animals antibiotics on a regular basis. Recent studies have found increased incidence of antibiotic resistance resulting from this chronic application of antibiotics. Current regulations have failed to resolve these problems, and in 2003 the American Public Health Association issued a call for a moratorium on CAFO construction. The purpose of this paper is to explore economic and legal solutions to this harmful shift in industry structure.

IV. Conclusion: Final Recommendations and Summary of Research Findings
CAFOs represent a severe hazard to the public health. Previous attempts at regulation have only curtailed symptoms rather than eliminating core problems. Yet neither scientists nor economists, who often oppose one another in such debates, believe CAFOs are the best method of animal agriculture. Decades of research have shown the CAFOs are not only unsustainable and wasteful in scientific terms, but economically as well. All that is required is a dismantling of current policies that enable the CAFO industry to out compete smaller operations. But as Nigel and Key (2003) note, changes to policy must be gradual or compensated so that farmers and other industry workers, and society at large, do not suffer from bankruptcy, unemployment, and sudden shortages in food products. To that end, it is recommended that government subsidies which would otherwise directly benefit CAFOs should be used to transition these operations to diversified farms. Indirect subsidies should be, if not cut altogether, then assessed to CAFOs at purchase; feed in the form of grain is the principle example of this. 55
Regarding externalities, the same gradual and compensated approach should be taken. A Coasian approach should be incorporated into the current regulatory frameworks, both to ease the regulatory burden and to allow individuals to reach efficient solutions of their own volition. Property rights should be delimited closely and firmly, with specific regards to farming, and keeping in mind that a certain amount of pollution, from noise to odor to runoff, is inevitable from agricultural processes. These measures would take effect over the course of years. In the meantime, the American Public Health Association's recommendation for a moratorium on CAFO permits should be honored by state and federal government, regardless of industry complaints. Furthermore, attention should be paid to specific populations at risk, populations in CAFO dense areas. If CAFO densities are seen to pose an acute public health risk in these areas, officials should identify key operations to shut down, if necessary. For decades, scientists, citizens, government officials, and industry professionals have recognized the problems posed by CAFO production methods. Free markets and well established property rights provide a solution that allows for efficient markets and protects public health. Hopefully, policy will catch up to the scientific research and recognize the expediency of this solution, and policy makers will put the public first and make the necessary changes. Hopefully, CAFOs will be a thing of the past in a few years, agriculture will have returned to its idyllic roots.

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