Dec 14

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Meet our 20 Pioneers under 40 in Environmental Public Health: Joan Casey, PhD

Like many who find themselves in environmental health, Joan Casey’s interest in studying the impacts of industrial agricultural came when she heard a startling fact.

“I got involved in doing the antibiotic use in livestock feed work because I took a course where they said that 70% of antibiotics sold for use in the US are used in animal feeds and not in human medicine. That was a really shocking statistic to me,” Dr. Casey shares.

Not only are the majority of antibiotics used in animal feed, but they are being used at sub-therapeutic levels, meaning the amounts used are so small that they wouldn’t help if you were sick. Instead they are used mainly because they help animals grow more quickly and get sick less often. However, when used this way, many of the general practices followed in industrial agriculture actually create an environment where antibiotic resistant bacteria flourish.

“In terms of antibiotic resistance, these operations essentially create the perfect environment for the propagation of antibiotic resistant bacteria. If you wanted to create resistant bacteria, you would create a place very similar to an industrial livestock operation. Because you put a ton of bacteria in one place in a comfortable living environment, you use low doses of antibiotics to select out and remove susceptible bacteria, and then you leave the resistant bacteria to thrive and grow. And, they have hosts available to them,” Dr. Casey explains.

This is even scarier when we realize these antibiotic resistant genes can get into our own ecosystems and our bodies.

“Those bacteria or resistance genes can get into water or air nearby, and into the manure that gets spread on crop fields. People living in close proximity to these locations then have the potential to be exposed to antibiotic resistant bacteria. And, a lot of these bacteria are really opportunistic, meaning if you have a cut or a suppressed immune system, these bacteria can stick around and cause an infection in a human,” Dr. Casey says.

With the rise in antibiotic resistance and opportunistic bacteria, it’s becoming more difficult for our bodies to fight infections and for doctors to treat them effectively. 

“[Agricultural antibiotic use] is also bleeding over into our ability to treat patients in hospitals because we are not really coming out with new antibiotics. Most people today weren’t alive before we had antibiotics, but before we had antibiotics, if you got pneumonia you very likely might die because your body might not be able to fight it off naturally. I think we take antibiotics for granted in a way that we shouldn’t,” Dr. Casey says. 

In an effort to reduce the impact and support ending antibiotic use in livestock, Dr. Casey shared some suggestions for things we as the general public and consumers can do. Many of these suggestions focus on changing behaviors that will send a message to industrial agricultural corporations that overuse of antibiotics is dangerous and has effects beyond the livestock and the people who work closely with the livestock.

The easiest thing to do would be to reduce meat consumption. “At the individual- level you can limit your meat consumption. Meatless Mondays are a great place to start. Everyone doesn’t have to go vegan. New research shows that reducing global average daily consumption to less than 6 oz. of meat could reduce antibiotic use by over 20%,” Dr. Casey suggests.

Beyond that, you can speak out through what meat you chose to purchase when you do buy meat. Dr. Casey shares tips for what to look for when it comes to deciphering the different labels.

“Organic should mean antibiotic free from birth to death of an animal. It is possible [however,] that in organic … poultry production, antibiotics may still be injected into the egg before the chick is born…. The only thing that means ‘antibiotic free’ is antibiotic free, in general. But, organic does mean a lot of other nice things like outdoor access for animals, no hormones, animals that are fed organic feed, and are raised on land that is certified organic. So, in general, organic might mean more ethically raised meat,” Dr. Casey explains.

Another way to send a message to these corporations is to speak out against, advocate for, and talk to your local representatives in support of laws like ones that are being introduced in San Francisco, requiring large chain grocery stores to report on their supplier’s use of antibiotics in meat and poultry.

“I think the shifts that we have seen among places like Panera and Chipotle serving antibiotic free products in their stores are entirely driven by consumer demand. If we as consumers continue to demand products raised sustainably and without antibiotics, we will continue to see more of them on the shelves and in grocery stores and in restaurants when we go out to eat,” Dr. Casey says. 

With all of this information, we have a growing understanding that agricultural practices really do affect people and the planet. These effects come not only from the amount of antibiotics used, but also from the agricultural practices and the ways the animals are raised leading to increases in greenhouse gas emissions.

“Nine percent of US greenhouse gas emissions come from agriculture and that primarily is from ruminants like dairy cows and cattle. This is a long-term contributor to climate change. … In this industrial model, the way that we’re raising meat in the US is unsustainable in terms of water use and land use and energy use. There are pretty far reaching implications of the way we’ve gone about raising food over the last century or so,” Dr. Casey explains. 

Agricultural practices like these have changed quickly over the last few decades, and the impacts have been greatly felt by the planet as well.

“The planet we live on isn’t static, we expect it to change over time, and it has been changing for millions of years, but the rate of change that is going on right now is the highest rate of change that has ever occurred to human knowledge on this planet. And, that is because of human activity. In order to preserve life for humans on this planet, we are in a generation that needs to make significant change at the individual through the planetary level if we want to pass on an Earth that looks at all recognizable to our grandkids or our grandkids’ grandkids,” Dr. Casey warns. 

To do this, Dr. Casey hopes for a future more focused on environmental health.

“My main hope is that we [environmental health scientists] continue to integrate into all other fields of science. I think that environmental health needs to become a much bigger part of decision making, from economics to education to how we run our government because it has been neglected for some time. I think, unfortunately, that is going to catch up with us. The more that environmental health scientists can work with others to solve these complex problems the better off we are all going to be,” Dr. Casey shares.

Some takeaway tips from Dr. Casey when it comes to living healthier lives with less impact of antibiotics are:

  1. Reduce meat consumption when possible.
  2. Choose organic, antibiotic free meat when you do eat meat, if you can.
  3. Speak up for and support legislation regulating antibiotic use in livestock operations.
  4. Use your consumer power to support brands that are serving antibiotic free meat and creating a larger market for it.
  5. Do not abuse antibiotics, but take them and appreciate their ability when truly necessary.

We wanted to find the best young researchers and advocates who might change the future of environmental health. So, we asked a panel of luminaries in environmental health to nominate rising stars who are doing pioneering work. After a rigorous selection process, we invited 20 of these nominees to be our 20 Pioneers under 40 in Environmental Public Health.

This month, we held our third webinar in the series. In addition to these presentations, we got to sit down and learn a little bit more about the researchers. While we did talk about their research, we also learned how they first got interested in the field and what this work means to them, plus a few tips for staying healthy.

Tags: antibioticsFood and Agriculture Environmentwebinars