Antibiotic use in the U.S. is high with an average 836 antibiotics prescribed per 1000 people, but I bet you didn’t think you had to worry about the antibiotics on your orange. (1) A recent EPA proposal will have you thinking twice about your citrus choices. Is your orange full of antibiotic residue from drugs, like streptomycin and oxytetracycline, or did it come from an organic farm?
You are probably well aware of the over-usage of antibiotics in livestock. Around 70% of the antibiotics in the United States are given to livestock like cattle, pigs, chicken, and seafood. It is common knowledge that this is a huge concern as antibiotic resistance grows. That’s one of the reasons why we recommend buying meat products that are organic and free of antibiotics. A recent EPA proposal is expanding the use of antibiotics on crops, which could mean that up to 650,000 pounds of antibiotics will be sprayed on citrus trees in Florida to treat greening disease. (2)
That’s a lot when you consider only 14,000 pounds of that class of antibiotic are used medically by Americans every year. That means 46x the medical usage! Does that make sense? Americans need them to fight illnesses that other antibiotics have not worked on like tuberculosis. This has critics concerned about what this could mean for the environment and human health.
Florida Citrus and Greening Disease
Greening disease has been wreaking havoc on the citrus industry in Florida ever since it hitchhiked its way here a little over a decade ago, with the help of a small insect from Asia. The disease is devastating the citrus crops in Florida and has been shown to be spreading to other areas including California. Reports from the citrus industry say that as the disease has been killing citrus crops, the fruit production is down by two-thirds from what it was.
Florida farmers are desperate. So is the state of Florida, which is reliant on the 8-billion-dollar industry and the 46,000 jobs that it creates. That’s probably what led to the EPA proposal allowing farmers to use thousands of pounds of antibiotics, including streptomycin and oxytetracycline, on citrus trees. (3)
The use of antibiotics on crops has been banned in the European Union and Brazil because of the concerns of using these antibiotics that are medically important to humans. Yes, streptomycin and oxytetracycline are still used to treat things like respiratory infections and bacterial infections. So why the push to spray our crops here in the United States when we are working to reduce antibiotic resistance? Why are antibiotics on your orange? That’s what we are wondering.
Can Antibiotics Save Florida Citrus Industry?
Is it to save the citrus industry and the jobs? Nope. Emergency applications have only shown that it may slow the progression of the disease allowing for a reduction in fruit loss. What does that mean? It might reduce the fruit loss by 20% for a few years. There is no cure for greening and most trees die within a few years of infection. So, spraying the trees will only delay the outcome in a state where its estimated that 90% of trees are infected. (3) That delay is best-case scenario. Some trials have shown no reduction in loss when treated fields are compared to untreated fields. There is no doubt that what is happening to Florida trees is devastating, but these desperate acts are at what cost?
Potential Downfalls of Antibiotic use on Human Health and the Environment
The use of antibiotics like these are already seeing the effects of antibiotic resistance. Both of the medications that will be sprayed on citrus are already used sparingly in human use because of antibiotic resistance. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 23,000 Americans die every year because of antibiotic resistance with some groups estimating even higher than 100,000. Studies have shown that when we combine agrichemicals like herbicides with antibiotics, it can increase the evolution of antibiotic resistance. One study showed it can increase resistance by up to 100,000 times faster. (4) (5) Do you think farmers will be using other herbicides too?
But it’s just being put on trees? And it’s just Florida? Wrong. Once we introduce these water-soluble antibiotics into our agriculture, they will be persistent in our environment. They will be in the soil, in the water, and as they evaporate, they will be in the air we breathe. Did you know that another common antibacterial, glyphosate, was actually found on Mount Everest?
We know that antibiotics kill the good along with the bad. The word antibiotic is literally anti-life. There has been no testing in how this will affect the habitats that these antibiotics infiltrate. We have no idea what it will do to the soil microbes found around the trees that are sprayed. How will it affect the chipmunks and rabbits that live in those treated fields? What will be the impact it will have on the waterways that these antibiotics runoff into? Waterways that provide food to Americans.
What will this mean for the health of your average American? We won’t know until it is too late. Antibiotics are harmful to the balance of our gut flora. We know how important the gut flora is to maintaining homeostasis. A poor gut can lead to a variety of health conditions, so introducing more antibiotics into our environment could lead to even more conditions like diabetes, cancer, mental health concerns, autoimmune, and others. We just don’t know the potential for harm but we know you don’t want antibiotics on your orange.
Avoid Antibiotics on Your Orange
Many people think they don’t have to worry about choosing organic when it comes to their citrus fruit like grapefruit and oranges. Hey, the orange doesn’t show up on the dirty dozen so that is good, right? They have a thick skin that keeps the chemicals out. Not anymore. This new EPA proposal give a pretty solid reason to choose organic to be sure your oranges haven’t been sprayed with antibiotics that are harmful to human health and the environment. These antibiotics won’t protect the citrus industry and we don’t know the full extent of long-term harm they will cause. When it comes to antibiotics on our citrus, the risks don’t outweigh the benefits.