George Osborne has warned that antibiotic resistance is becoming such a serious problem that it will eclipse cancer as a cause of death worldwide by 2050. According to The Guardian “Osborne will warn of an enormous economic cost, which could cut global GDP by 3.5%, a cumulative cost of $100bn (£70bn). The chancellor will say: ‘Unless we take global action, antimicrobial resistance will become an even greater threat to mankind than cancer currently is’.”
He will be calling for urgent and radical action: “My message here at the IMF meeting in Washington is that we need the world’s governments and industry leaders to work together in radical new ways. We have to dramatically shift incentives for pharmaceutical companies and others to create a long-term solution to this problem, with new rewards, funded globally, that support the development of new antibiotics and ensure access to antibiotics in the developing world.”
But why is there such a problem with antibiotic resistance? It is generally accepted that it has been caused by the indesciminate use of antibiotics in agriculture where they are widely used in the farming of animals even when the animals are not sick. In the US, for instance, more than 70% of the total volume of antibiotics which we rely on are actually used on farms.
One might think that an obvious solution would be drive through laws to limit the use of antibiotics on farms. But this doesn’t seem to be on his agenda. According to the Guardian Kerry McCarthy, the shadow environment secretary, speaking at the Antibiotics and Farming Conference in London, accused ministers of adopting a “negative role” in EU negotiations over calls by the European parliament to end the routine use of preventative antibiotics in farming.
It is interesting that the solution to this problem which Osborne says is so serious is to increase financial incentives to the pharmaceutical industry rather than step in to curb behaviour in the agricultural sector. Clearly there would be effects from a ban on antibiotics use in farms – you might expect yields to fall and prices of meat products to rise as a result.
But would this be such a bad thing? Scientists overwhelmingly agree that reducing meat consumption would be good for health, and specifically that it would reduce the instances of cancer.
This would seem to be another example of ideological thinking getting in the way of the win/win solution.