Eliminating the routine use of antibiotics in livestock would be the single most effective way to improve public health by changing the way meat is produced in the U.S., said the keynote speaker at a conference here today.
The second most effective approach would be to aggressively enforce existing anti-trust laws and thereby increase competition in the livestock industry and foster more small-scale production, said Bob Martin, a senior policy advisor for Johns Hopkins School of Public Health in Baltimore.
"If we were only going to do two things, I think those would be the most transformative things we could do," Martin told about 75 attendees of “Healthy Farms, Healthy People: Agriculture and Health Summit."
The summit was organized by the Kansas Rural Center in partnership with the Kansas Farmers Union and the Kansas Health Institute. It was funded in part by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention through a grant provided to the National Network of Public Health Institutes.
The policies that Martin listed as priorities were among 24 recommendations made in 2008 by the National Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production, for which he was executive director.
"We looked at antibiotic overuse as the No. 1 public health concern because it adds significantly to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria that find its way into the community through a number of pathways," he said. "We're creating resistant bacteria, stronger bacteria that can infect human populations. And then we're seriously inhibiting our ability to fight those infections...I don't think it's alarmist to say we're on the verge of that point where we won't have effective antibiotics."
Overuse of antibiotics goes hand-in-hand with large-scale operations, Martin said.
"The type of operation that is most likely to misuse antibiotics are the large-scale operations where the animals are overcrowded and waste management is a problem. They stand over their own waste and it's flushed out from the barn a couple times a day. Those environments are really good breeding grounds for bacteria. So to suppress the infection rate, low levels of antibiotics are administered on a routine basis," Martin said.
"It's really true in this setting, the old adage 'what doesn't kill them makes them stronger.'"
The Kansas Livestock Association raised concerns about Martin’s views prior to the summit but no one from the organization attended or could be reached for comment afterwards.
However, the Kansas Farm Bureau, the state’s largest agriculture organization was represented. Meagan Cramer, KFB communications director, said her members welcomed discussions about the health impacts of modern, industrialized agriculture on consumers’ health. But she said some typical Kansas farmers should have been included in the line-up of presenters at the summit.
“That voice was maybe left out a little bit,” Cramer said. But she quickly added, “I think these types of discussions are good and they are becoming more mainstream.”
Consolidation big issue
Paul Johnson grows produce and lobbies for the Kansas Rural Center. He attributed much of the consolidation in the agriculture industry to the farm bill, the primary driver of federal agriculture and food policy. Among other things, it outlines agriculture subsidies and farm credits, conservation policy, and food and nutrition programs. It is the source of intense debate when the bill is renewed every five years or so.
"Concentration and consolidation have built off the farm bill politics. Eighty-five percent of all our farm payments from 1985 to 2009 went to 20 percent of farms. A third of our farms got no help at all from USDA payments," Johnson said.
As a result, Kansas has lost 90 percent of its hog farms since 1978. Today, he said, 319 farms account for 95 percent of hog sales in the state.
Over the same period, the number of Kansas dairies has dropped from 5,600 to 420, Johnson said. "Twenty of those have 65 percent of the cows," he said.
In beef production, "One percent of the cattle farms do half the sales in our state. About 10 percent do 75 percent of the sales," Johnson said.
Johnson said Kansas could create its own farm and food plan to counter consolidation forces and encourage smaller-scale agriculture.
"We have many resources to draw from in the state," he said, citing the beginning farm loan program out of Kansas Development Finance Authority, the Kansas State University Research and Extension, the marketing division in the Kansas Department of Agriculture. "People need to be players at this point," he said.<a name="continued"></a>
Support for local producers
The connection between the industrialization of agriculture and the nutritional value of the food Americans eat was what Emily Hampton and Ashley Craff came to hear about and discuss. The women work for Farmers and Educators United, a Lawrence-based program that facilitates getting locally produced food into childcare centers.
"Our main goal is to reach kids before they've already formed their eating habits, and combating obesity by creating a culture of health from day one," said Hampton.
Craff said even with the program's limited size — it currently distributes food to nine childcare centers — it has generated demand for small farm produce in Douglas County.
"We've surveyed and talked to farmers, and they report that they are producing more now than they used to because of this new market with childcare centers," Craff said.
Connecting children to the source of their food is among the ways shown to combat childhood obesity, said another speaker at the conference, Barb LaClair of the Kansas Health Institute.
"We're raising a generation of children that doesn't have any idea where their food comes from. It comes in a cellophane package in the grocery store — they don't know if there's a farmer behind that food or a rancher," LaClair said. "It's been shown that children who participate in growing foods are more open to trying different kinds of fruits and vegetables, and are more likely to have better eating behaviors."
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