The excessive use of antibiotics, pesticides and herbicides around the world, risks widespread resistance, according to a study published in Nature earlier this month. Growing resistance among malign bacteria and other harmful organisms, can undermine human health and systems for biomass production. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 700,000 deaths around the globe can already be attributed to antimicrobial or antibiotic resistance each year and this number is expected to rise to 10 million in 2050. The study found that, so far, only the use of antibiotics for “Gram negative” bacteria have completely surpassed safe levels. These Gram negative class of bacteria are an important medical challenge: their outer membrane protects them from many antibiotics (including penicillin) and thus there are antibiotics especially designed to target them. This class of bacteria includes E.coli, salmonella and gonorrhea, and causes widespread diseases globally.

According to the WHO, better control over the prescription of medicines is need to battle growing antibiotics resistance is. In the U.S., and elsewhere to a lesser extent, there has been a trend of “medicalization” since the 1980s; the number of medical diagnoses has expanded rapidly and so has the number of pharmaceutical treatments. To illustrate, since the 1990s, the number of office visits for sleep problems has doubled and diagnoses of insomnia increased sevenfold, but prescriptions for sleep medications increased more than 30 times. An important step forward, to decrease medication, could be to emphasize the effectiveness of non-prescription remedies. That is, for many conditions that are heavily medicalized today, lifestyle changes could be equally or even more effective.

Another measure, according to the WHO, is to reduce antibiotics use in livestock farming. Earlier this month, leaders of the UK’s main medical associations called upon the U.K. government to commit to a complete ban on the preventive use of antibiotics in animal husbandry. The European parliament has already voted in favor of a similar measure, but this will only come into force after the Brexit (2022), and these experts urge the U.K. government to commit to such a ban as well.

Furthermore, the study in Nature also stated that promoting biodiverse environments can help to suppress outbreaks of pests or pathogens. Although the use of pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers was key in achieving food security in the mid-20th century, the current excessive use has significant repercussions for food production: it has eroded arable land, toxified groundwater, led to biodiversity loss and greater pesticide resistance.

RISKS MARKED ON THE RISK RADAR AS NUMBER 3: Spread of infectious disease

The Risk Radar is a monthly research report in which we monitor and qualify the world’s biggest risks to watch. Our updates are based on the estimated likelihood and impact of these risks. This report provides an additional ‘risk flection’ from a political, social, economic and technological perspective.
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