Ethanol, bugs, and drugs

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by Brian Devore | March 27, 2009 • Agro-environmental shocker of the week: corn-based ethanol production may be contributing to the development of antibiotic-resistant superbugs. Think about that the next time you gas up at the pump so you can drive to the doctor for a dose of penicillin.

Loon Commons is a blog of the Land Stewardship Project. Contact Loon Commons at bdevore@landstewardshipproject.org

These days, being a corn ethanol booster is a little like cheering for the Detroit Lions. The industry is on a heck of a losing streak. Not only have profits left the industry, but there’s mounting scientific evidence that it’s not the environmental godsend some would have us believe it is, and that it uses more water than our rural areas can afford to give up. The Wall Street Journal has never been a fan of ethanol, but its March 16 editorial, “Everyone Hates Ethanol,” was particularly scathing. “Ethanol is one of the most shameless energy rackets going, in a field with no shortage of competitors,” concluded the newspaper’s editorial board. Ouch. Even coming from an consistent oil industry apologist like the Wall Street Journal, that smarts.

Ethanol’s recent run of bad headlines prompted Mickey Peterson of the Minnesota Corn Research and Promotion Council to complain on the Red River Farm Network: “You think you’ve got one problem solved and then somebody else comes up with yet another study.”

Peterson’s frustrated comment came before the latest revelation: antibiotic resistant bacteria are showing up in ethanol plants across the country. My first reaction when Minnesota Public Radio reported this was: how are drugs like penicillin finding their way into ethanol plants? It turns they are put there on purpose.

Although ethanol is a decidedly sterile material, the making of it is steeped in the funky biology of fermentation, which relies on enzymes and yeast. With such a process comes bacteria, and sometimes those bacterial bugs can become so dominant that they produce lactic acid instead of alcohol.

How do you keep bacteria in check? With antibiotics. As Ethanol Producer Magazine reports, drugs such as penicillin and virginiamycin have become key tools in ethanol production. Anytime you use antibiotics, whether it be in the doctor’s office, in livestock feed or in a fermentation tank, there is the danger that some bacterial bugs will survive the treatment, spawning a generation of drug-resistant offspring. The more drugs you use, the more opportunities for superbugs to evolve and thrive.

Well, the superbug chickens have come home to hatch in the Ethanol Belt. This week’s MPR story on the connection between superbugs and ethanol may have come as a surprise to many, but as early as 2005 Ethanol Producer Magazine reported that resistant bacteria were showing up in ethanol plants. Scientists reported in that publication that some of the resistant bacteria were subcultured many times without antibiotics and still retained their ability to resist be destroyed by drugs. The scientists described as “distrubing” that one strain thrived despite being exposed to high dosages of penicillin and virginiamycin. (Hint: when a scientist uses the word “distrubing,” it’s like a layperson saying “Holy crap!”)

This is extremely troubling, especially when one considers that federal mandates are calling for 36 billion gallons of ethanol to be mixed into our gasoline supply by 2022. That will add up to a whole lot of drugs being poured into a whole lot of fermentation tanks—and a whole lot of superbugs being cooked up.

This adds to last year’s news that there may be a connection between feeding distiller’s grain—an ethanol production byproduct—to cattle, and the recent spike in E. coli outbreaks. The MPR story that was broadcast this week cited a recent U.S. Food and Drug Administration survey of 60 ethanol plants, including some of the 18 in Minnesota. The testing showed that besides penicillin and virginiamycin, residues of the antibiotics erythromycin and tylosin were found in the distiller’s grains produced by plants.

If such research threatens to destroy the market for distiller’s grains, it could be a staggering economic blow to the ethanol industry—in many cases the only consistently profitable enterprise for plants has been the selling of this feed. In addition, ethanol boosters have often overcome local opposition to the construction of new plants by convincing local cattle producers that the facility will be a good source of inexpensive feed.

There are all sorts of ways the manufacturers of these drugs could respond to this news, but PhibroChem, the maker of Lactrol, a virginiamycin-based product used widely in ethanol plants, has come up with a particularly creative way to troubleshoot the issue: it’s asking the Food and Drug Administration to approve the antibiotic as a human food additive, according to the National Grain and Feed Association. Why didn’t I think of that? Once a drug is food, no worries, right?

Ingesting low levels of antibiotics directly through food is troubling, considering how it could lead to the development of antibiotic resistance in individuals. But even more insidious is the threat overuse of these drugs poses to human health at large.

This is already a major human health crisis. Over use of antibiotics in livestock production, as well as in health care facilities and doctors’ offices (as many as one-third of prescriptions in this country are unnecessary), has threatened to undermine a miracle of modern medicine. I’m too young to remember the dark ages pre-penicillin, when people routinely died from simple infections, but you get a sense of what things were like when visiting hospitals that have had to set up sterile rooms for patients infected with drug-resistant staph.

While researching a special LSP report on antibiotic resistance and its connection to using subtherapeutic dosages of drugs in livestock, I ran across the work of Orville Schell, a journalist who wrote on the issue in the early 1980s. Schell framed the issue as a kind of “tragedy of the commons.” He saw antibiotics as a public good, one that should be protected through careful use. When we over use drugs by treating a viral (rather than bacterial) illness with penicillin, or by putting chlortetracycline in livestock feed to boost meat production, we are threatening to trash the commons. (Schell went on to co-found Niman Ranch Company, which specializes in meat raised without antibiotics; several Minnesota farmers raise livestock for Niman.) As individuals the over use of these drugs may not have a direct, immediate impact. But as a society we are imposing a major health threat by creating an environment where the useful life of these antibiotics is cut short.

Now ethanol may be the latest enemy of a healthy commons.

I’m not holding out hope that this latest revelation will prompt swift action on the part of the government. The USDA and FDA have known for the decades that antibiotic use in livestock production is a problem. Eight years ago, research by the Union of Concerned Scientists showed that over 24 million pounds of subtherapeutic antibiotics were being given to livestock annually. That’s compared to three million pounds of antibiotics that were used annually for human medicine. As far as I know, the livestock industry never disputed these figures. Subtherapeutic dosages of antibiotics are a major promoter of superbugs, so these statistics should have stirred into action any government agency concerned about public health.

But to this day, the foot-dragging continues. For example, the FDA’s Cener for Veterinary Medicine has said it will not take action to restrict the use of Lactrol in ethanol production while PhibroChem is pursuing its food additive petition, according to the National Grain and Feed Association.

Now I know how to avoid getting a traffic ticket: just file a petition calling for speeding to be made legal. In terms of making their next quarterly profit projections, pharmaceutical companies have a vested interest in seeing this issue not be dealt with. Let’s face it, they are more profitable in the short term when they sell more antibiotics, not less (these firms must have been thrilled when ethanol hit its stride a few years ago—talk about a huge drug market opportunity).

When a long-term public good like antibiotics is threatened by the short-term demands of private enterprise, it’s time for a government entity like the FDA or the USDA to step in and serve as referee. Pharmaceutical companies, as well as ethanol firms and factory farms for that matter, have too much at stake financially to be trusted with protecting an antibiotic commons—one that’s seething with superbugs.

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