Photo by Robert Hood / Fred Hutch News Service
On Christmas day in 1948, a scientist walked into his laboratory outside of New York City to check the results of an experiment. What he found changed the way we raise farm animals and, according to journalist and author Maryn McKenna, set the world on course for crisis.
That crisis is antibiotic resistance, and it began — or at least accelerated — with the discovery 70 years ago that McKenna, the author of “Big Chicken: The Incredible Story of How Antibiotics Created Modern Agriculture and Changed the Way the World Eats,” described Thursday to a packed auditorium at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.
That scientist discovered that giving tiny doses of antibiotics to chickens sped their growth and protected them from crowding and other unhealthy conditions. Considered both a miracle and a moneymaker, the practice quickly became widespread in pork, beef and other meat production as well. But McKenna said the unintended consequence was that the pervasive use of these drugs put pressure on bacteria to do what they do very well even without encouragement — develop resistance through mutation.