The drugs we eat - Chemicals on farms end up on your plate

Less than two decades ago, when this millennium dawned, the world population stood at 6,082,966,429 people.

That figure will reach something around 7,584,821,144 in a little over a year when a new decade begins, an 8.7% increase in 20 years. Anyone who imagines that a manageable progression might consider one fact.

In 1970, when Donie O’Sullivan led Kerry to their 22nd All Ireland and Jack Lynch was Taoiseach, there were roughly half as many people in the world as there are now. This has many consequences, not many are positive.

Trying to feed a growing population while not destroying the planet is one. There is a new awareness of the ethics around how food animals are produced. The contributions meat and dairy production make to climate change are reshaping diets and markets. The politics of food are changing.

A minor act in that drama played out in Brussels this week when fish quotas were set.

Some reflected scientific advice others did not. Commercial interests prevailed. This junction between business and reality is hotly contested. Trying to reconcile sustainability and profitability — and convention — is difficult. That so many government departments seem official lobbyists for industries rather than representatives of all of society adds to those tensions.

Those tensions surfaced elsewhere this week when Northern Ireland’s chief vet criticised how drugs are prescribed for farm animals. Dr Robert Huey emphasised concerns around antimicrobial resistance.

Overusing these drugs means that bugs develop a tolerance and make some infections hard to treat. The overuse of antibiotics renders some wonder drugs redundant — a terrible price to pay to protect profitability in food production.

Similar issues were highlighted by two studies that suggest chemicals used in salmon farming may have a harmful impact on shrimp, lobsters, and other crustaceans. The Scottish Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA) and an Norwegian institute investigated the impact salmon farming chemicals have.

Norway’s International Research Institute of Stavanger (IRIS) suggested the widespread use of hydrogen peroxide is more dangerous to shrimp than was thought. SEPA believe the impact of two other chemicals, Emamectin Benzoate and Teflubenzuron may extend beyond the immediate vicinity of salmon farms.

Salmon farming — described as “chemical warfare at sea” — production in Scotland fell for the first time in years last year because of sea lice infestations. Their dilemma is not unique, the problem is growing worldwide and lice are far more drug-resistant than thought.

As human populations grow these issues will intensify. It is time to introduce a culture of consumer-first oversight to government food departments and food production lines so societal rather than industry interests prevail. That this industry depends on taxpayer subsidy — almost €60bn a year — should make that reform straightforward.

Bord Bia’s greenwashing on Food Harvest 2025 seems a perfect example of the sectoral-driven plámás that should be checked.

If we are what we eat then we should have a far better understanding of how a turkey becomes, in less than five months, such a splendid bird or how a farmed salmon glows Barbie doll pink.

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