History of antibiotic resistance

Why worry?

Animals and antibiotics

What we know and how we act


What can we do?

More information



Antibiotic Use and Farming

Marti Hoekstra, Ashley Abernathey & Victoria Albers


Recent concerns about antibiotic resistance have fueled the consumer trend and turned their pocketbook toward organic antibiotic-free products. The rising concern and hot debate over the health hazards associated with antibiotic resistance and antibiotic use in farm animals has many of us confused. As a group we have decided to further investigate the use of antibiotics in farm animals and to weigh the risks and benefits of organic farm products. Our research consisted of interviews with two organic farmers in the Fargo-Moorhead area as well as the barn nutritionist at North Dakota State University. We then compared the knowledge from those interviews with the background information we gathered from our other research sources.


Organic, hormone free and all natural are a few of the terms that describe our options found in the meat coolers at our grocery stores. What do these even mean? What would antibiotics or hormones have to do with what we put on the dinner table? As the use of antibiotics in medicine has become so abused, we find ourselves facing the consequences of antibiotic resistant bacteria that make some illnesses much more difficult to treat than they ever have before. Not only are antibiotics used in human medicine, but also are used on conventional farms to prevent or treat diseased animals and plants.

There have been many studies comparing organic farming to conventional methods of antibiotic use done throughout the years that have ended with inconsistent results.  One scientist’s research concluded that even though there are short term economic benefits with the use of antibiotics in agriculture, the risk to human health is great enough to necessitate a change in policy (Goforth et al., 2000).  To add to this idea, another scientist found that prudent antibiotic guidelines and regulations in agriculture must be defined just like those required for physicians, in order to minimize resistance effects (Salyers, 2002).  These studies essentially state that action needs to be taken in order to reduce our problem of resistance. It has also been found through research that the resistance rate from organic methods of farming is less than that in conventional methods, suggesting that organic farming is effective in reducing antibiotic resistance (Schwaiger et al., 2008).  On the other hand, professional researcher McDermott concluded in his work that there are large information gaps in the research and it is unknown whether there is a positive correlation between antibiotic use in animals and an increase in resistance in humans. This finding suggests that there isn’t enough evidence to further regulate and restrict of antibiotic use on farms.  One fact we are able to gather is that bacteria of human and animal origin is becoming increasingly resistant and further research is essential for the wellbeing of our society (McDermott et al., 2002).

It is known that something needs to be done to decrease growing antibiotic resistance, but the most effective method has not yet been defined.  Much debate relating to this issue continues and we would like to contribute by providing our own research study. Our group has taken action by working to find out more about the differences between conventional and organic farming, discovering the benefits and consequences of antibiotic use on farms, and investigating whether or not these farming practices contribute to the worldwide problem of growing antibiotic resistance. 

Antibiotic Use in Animals

The discovery of antibiotics forever changed the world of medicine. These “wonder drugs” gave society a chance to cure illnesses that had once thought to be hopelessly fatal.  It would seem that there would be nothing to lose when we additionally discovered miracle uses for antibiotics on farms as well as in human medicine. However there is some evidence that shows the use of these drugs on farms is contributing to the increased prevalence of resistant bacteria found in humans.

About eight billion animals are raised for our consumption every year in the United States and of those animals 7.5 billion chickens, about 300 million turkeys and a million each of cows and pigs receive antibiotics during their lifetime (Levy, 2002).  In the early 1950’s as antibiotics were introduced on farms for disease prevention, it was also discovered that these drugs could be used as growth enhancers for animals (Levy, 2002). Obviously the bigger the animal, the more meat/animal product produced and the more money to be earned by the farmer.  These drugs became essential to meet the growing demand for meat products for our growing populations.  Antibiotics also became necessary for the treatment of farm-threatening diseases. With farms becoming larger with more animals in close proximity the risk for disease is greatly increased. 

The recent debate brewing involves the use of antimicrobials in farm animal agro-ecosystems and its threat to spread to humans. Antibiotic resistance has been generated in animals and crops, spreading to humans potentially contributing to our already prevalent problems with resistant bacteria (Turnidge 2003).  For example, it has been shown that farm workers that come into close contact with animals being treated, have high levels of resistant bacteria in their intestinal systems (Levy, 2002). These bacteria don’t cause problems on their own unless the farm worker becomes sick by a bacterial illness. The resistant bugs are difficult to treat and it takes stronger antibiotics and more aggressive treatment in order to achieve a cure. The passage of resistant bacteria from animals to humans also comes about through food intake. A great example of a case of resistant bacteria is the occurrence of Salmonella outbreaks. These dangerous outbreaks have been most commonly linked to cow products, whether it is milk or beef (Levy, 2002). In some cases, Salmonella has come from animals being treated with subtherapeutic antibiotics, which causes them to carry multi-resistant bacteria. For people already being treated with antibiotics for another illness will find greater difficulty in treating the Salmonella.  Levy goes on to point out that the transfer of bacterial host, their plasmids and their genes is occurring among all participants of interactive environments throughout the world, including people, animals, fish, birds, insects, and plants (Levy, 2002).  The antibiotic resistance problems have become complex and difficult to resolve since everything is connected not only locally, but globally.

Unfortunately because of the frequent use and misuse of these drugs, many kinds of bacteria in our bodies have built up an opposition to the health benefits of antibiotics. This resistance has forced us to turn to the use of multiple antibiotic drug treatments in hope for success. It is very evident in recent years that the occurrence of using stronger and multiple medications without success has become more prevalent and is quite disturbing. According to a 2004 report from the Infectious Diseases Society of America (IDSA), about two million people acquire bacterial infections in U.S. hospitals each year, and 90,000 die as a result. About 70 percent of those infections are resistant to at least one drug (Sharfstein, 2010). Much work has been done on the science of resistance and ways to reduce this phenomenon. We would like to add to this by examining the possibility of reducing or eradicating antibiotic use in agriculture by organic methods. 


Interviews were done in the Fargo/Moorhead area: a face to face interview from Marc Bauer, an expert in animal nutrition from NDSU, and two email interviews provided by organic farming experts from the My Sister's Farm Organic Farm and Lynn Brakke Organic Farm. These participants were asked a variety of questions analyzing the positive and negative aspects of organic farming versus antibiotic/hormone use and their effects on antibiotic resistance. The interviews consisted of 16 questions covering many aspects of organic farming and how it relates to antibiotics resistance.  


Interview Instrument

Answers:  Noreen Thomas from My Sister's Farm Organic Farm (listed first) Lynn Brakke from Brakke Organic Farm (listed second)

1.     What is your background experience/knowledge on antibiotic use in agriculture, including livestock and crops?

·      BS degree in food and nutrition and microbiology

·      My background experience/knowledge on antibiotic use in agriculture is very limited because I didn’t raise livestock until I switched my farm to certified organic production.

2.     What do you do for a living and how does this relate to antibiotic use?

·      Farm

·      I am a certified organic farmer who also raises organic livestock.

3.     What is your understanding on antibiotic resistance in bacteria?

·      More prevalent and big issue in US

·      Repetitive use of antibiotics leads to resistance.

4.     Why would you choose to promote your methods of farming to other farmers?

·      Better for environment/better for family farms that are small. Better in saving the culture of family farms. Better distraction

·      Because it reduces the need for antibiotics.

5.     Do you think that antibiotic use in agriculture is ethical? Why or why not?

·      No

·      Yes, I think it is but only when needed to heal the animal. It should not be used routinely to compensate for unsustainable production systems.

6.     Is it possible that without the use of antibiotics we could have better quality livestock and crops?

·      Get them off of grain and better heath= less medication. No confinement

·      Absolutely.

7.     What are the benefits for using antibiotics and do these benefits exceed over the negative effects that are caused with resistance?

·      SLOPPY farming = more sick animals = more meds

·      Antibiotics are a terrific tool and always beneficial if used carefully and sparingly, never routinely.

8.     When crops and livestock are exposed to antibiotics, how are the consumers affected?

·      Directly especially children and pregnant women.

·      The antibiotic is often not completely metabolized by the plant or animal before it is harvested so the antibiotic is left in our food for us to eat causing all sorts of problems with human health.

9.     There is research suggesting the transfer of resistant bacteria from farm livestock directly to the surrounding environment (including human bacteria) – What is your knowledge pertaining to this research?

·      Much including European studies that will scare you even more

·      Very limited.

10.  Could organic methods of farming be a solution in the reduction of antibiotic resistance and how?

·      No- only if EU certified cause it can get in our waterways etc

·      Yes, because the organic standards require the very limited use of antibiotics.

11.  Do you find any negative consequences from organic farming vs. antibiotic/hormone use farming?

·      No

·      No.

12.  What is the primary reason for using antibiotics in agriculture and could there be alternative methods? 

·      Yes already are. Using tincture homeopathic

·      Profits.  Better animal health and production methods are the solution.  Pushing animals beyond their natural ability to produce is the problem.

13.  Are some types of food more affected by antibiotics than others?

·      Protein foods

·      I feel any food that comes from animals is the most suspect.

14.  Often, it is said that the quality of the food is better if it is organic.  Do you believe this?  Why or why not?

·      Yes especially antioxidants are proved to be higher

·      I feel that often it is, but I don’t think that is always the case.  You need to know how it was raised.  You need to know your farmer.  There are poor organic farmers that produce poor quality products.  

15.  How does organic farming reduce the negative effects on the environment?

·      On grass/cover crops/less commercial fertilizers/less petroleum based

·      That is a huge question that I could talk about for pages here, but in a nut shell, the main issue is that the organic producer is not putting synthetic substances into the environment.

16.  Are there any negative effects from using antibiotics in livestock/crops on the environment?

·      Yes – we already know this

·      Not that I am aware of if they are used sparingly and not routinely.


Marc Bauer Nutritionist

When asked about organic vs. conventional farming methods and its relation to antibiotic resistance, Marc Bauer states that there isn’t much difference between the two types in relation to contributing to resistance. He believes the main reason people farm organically is because of the high demand for organic products. He states “Think of it as, 'jumping on the bandwagon.' If there is a demand for a product there is money to be made in that area. Organic farmers are providing the supply in order to meet the demand for their products from consumers.” He goes on to say that producing organic products isn’t going to stop the spread of resistant bacteria. “When looking at the bigger picture, livestock only accounts for a small percentage of resistant bacteria transfer and the majority comes from the overuse and abuse of antibiotics in humans.” He concludes that if there is a slight benefit from eating organic products, it’s not going to help much in the long run, especially from the inefficiency associated with organic farming. “It would be impossibly inefficient to think that organic farming would be able to keep up with the demands to feed the world population.” Organic farms are small and require intense labor because of all the requirements to keep the products organic certified. “Without the mass production of food from conventional farms, how would everyone survive? It’s highly unlikely that the world could survive off organic farms alone.”


There is much controversy in the world of farming concerning the use of antibiotics to improve the quality of its products. The overuse of antibiotics is a huge factor and has brought up much concern about the dangers of conventional farming.  In an attempt to relieve some of the problems associated with antibiotic use, an alternative method of farming emerged in the 1940’s known as organic farming. These questions remain: Does this new practice help alleviate any problems?  Does it cut down on the spread of antibiotic resistance?

In the 1990’s, a sharp reduction in development of new drug classes coupled with emergence of strains of human pathogens resistant to nearly all antibiotics led to a sense of crisis in human medicine (McEwen, 2006). Although most scientists agree that improper use of antibiotics in human medicine is the greatest contributing factor to bacterial resistance in humans, added protective measures have been implemented to ensure that antibiotic use in livestock and poultry does not affect human health (Drovers, 2010). These measures brought on a resurgence of organic farming; believing that this limited use of antibiotics will help to relieve the rising problem of antibiotic resistance. In Denmark and The Netherlands, they took it as far as cutting out antimicrobial growth promoters all together. This resulted in additional animal death and disease, with little evidence of decreased human antibiotic resistant rates (Drovers, 2010).  This study goes to show that the decision to limit the use of antibiotics in food production should not be taken lightly. The situation needs to be clearly assessed; otherwise harmful health risks, as well as unnecessary animal suffering, could arise. With this being said, how much of a benefit do organic farms really create?

Both organic farmers we interviewed believe their method of farming produces better quality livestock and crops. However, there are poor organic farmers out there who produce poor quality products. A rule of thumb when buying organic products, this was brought to our attention by one of the farmers: know your farmer. One response goes as far as to believe that this method of farming could be a solution to the growing problem of antibiotic resistance because the organic standards require the very limited use of antibiotics. On the other hand, they believe that when antibiotics are used they can negatively affect the consumer. One comment from the organic farmer goes into detail stating that the antibiotic is often not completely metabolized by the plant or animal before it is harvested. Therefore, the antibiotic is left in our food causing problems with human health. Both farmers agree that they are helping our antibiotic resistance problem, supplementing the research by Schwaiger that concluded that resistance rates from organic farming is less than conventional methods.

Not only do the antibiotics get into our bodies from food, but they also contaminate our water supply. Farms use chemicals on their crops where they soak into the soil. From natural irrigation, these substances run off into the groundwater, which supplies about 30% of our fresh water. Unlike common conventional farms, organic farm methods have minimal to no impact on our water systems. In regards to this topic, both organic farmers we interviewed agree that organic farming reduces the negative effects on the environment. Also in Levy’s studies, he agrees that antibiotic resistance is very intertwined between farming, the environment and humans. We were unable to find any studies that can prove a direct relationship between all of these factors.

After covering numerous topics on organic vs. conventional farming, we bring up two last questions.  Is it ever ethical to use antibiotics? One response was a quick no. The other was more moderate saying using antibiotics was ethical only when needed to heal the animal and that they shouldn’t be used routinely to compensate for unsustainable production systems. So why do people farm conventionally?  According to these farmers, profit is the reason that animals are pushed beyond their natural ability to produce, which becomes a problem. So in order to get away from conventional farming, one organic farmer respondent stated that better animal health and production methods will reduce the effects of farming on antibiotic resistance. Goforth’s study also agrees that improving regulations related to antibiotics in livestock feed could potentially decrease our problems of resistance. Becoming stricter with antibiotic use is a suggestion he uses to improve its increasing prevalence.

Mark Bauer also contributed to the topic by providing his take on these issues. Mr. Bauer insists that it would be impossible to feed our world if all farming was completed organically. He does not find any real benefits to this type of farming and even refers to it as a “trend.” He showed us the lengthy books that go into detail about specific indications for the use of antibiotics. Every year the amount and types are changed and he feels that these substances are regulated adequately.


 Our group performed our own research to discover more about the differences between conventional and organic farming, benefits and consequences of antibiotic use on farms and whether or not this contributes to the growing worldwide problem of antibiotic resistance. As antibiotic resistance becomes a growing concern, using antibiotic free products from organic farms has been thought to be a possible solution by consumers. By analyzing data from research studies, literature reviews and our own interviews we are able to collect a few conclusions.

According to the organic farmers interviewed there are many advantages to organic farm products including possible health benefits, greater nutrient value and decreased exposure to unnecessary antibiotics. These farmers had passionate responses that strongly support their reasons for providing organic farm products. Because of its expenses, high maintenance and high demand of time it becomes inefficient especially since the quality of food isn’t always guaranteed better.

According to the conventional side, we need to focus on production and look at it in an economic way because of a growing population.  There are already well defined regulations set for the use of antibiotics to minimize effects.  There may be a slight benefit with organic farming, but when looking at the big picture it only accounts for a small of a percentage of the resistance problem and it’s not going to have much of an effect in the long run. 

The literature we found has a general consensus that more policy and regulations need to be made to preserve the safety of humans.  There is an economic benefit to using antibiotics, but we need to compare it with the risk of antibiotic resistance that could result to determine whether the benefits outweigh the risk involved.  We need to consider that we don’t know the exact details of antibiotic resistance and there are a lot of uncertainties.  Knowing this, we need to determine if we need to be pro-active and create more policy before this problem escalades into something we can’t fix.  Either this or we need to decide if it would be better to wait and complete more research before jumping to conclusions that antibiotic use in agriculture is such a bad thing.  Antibiotic resistance is a controversial topic and it’s going to take more than a couple of experts’ opinions and literature reviews to determine what the best solution would be for the rising problem of resistance.



Goforth, R., & Goforth, C. (2000). Appropriate Regulation of Antibiotics in Livestock Feed. Boston College Environmental Affairs Law Review, 28(1), 39. Retrieved from EBSCO MegaFILE database.


Levy, S. (2002). The antibiotic paradox. Cambridge, MA: Perseus Publishing.


McDermott, P., Zhao, S., Wagner, D., Simjee, S., Walker, R., & White, D. (2002). The Food Safety Perspective of Antibiotic Resistance. Animal Biotechnology, 13(1), 71-84. Retrieved from E-Journals database.


Salyers, A. (2002). An Overview of the Genetic Basis of Antibiotic Resistance in Bacteria and Its Implications   For Agriculture. Animal Biotechnology, 13(1), 1-5. Retrieved from E Journals database.


Schwaiger, K., Schmied, E-M. V., & Bauer, J. (2008). Comparative Analysis of Antibiotic Resistance Characteristics of Gram-negative Bacteria Isolated from Laying Hens and Eggs in Conventional and Organic Keeping Systems in Bavaria, Germany. Zoonoses and Public Health, 55(7), 331-341. Retrieved from E-Journals database.



Sharfstein, J. (2010, July 14) Statement of Joshua M. Sharfstein, MD Principal Duty Commissioner.

Retrieved from http://energycommerce.house.gov/documents/20100714/Sharfstein.

Turnidge, J. 2004. Antibiotic use in animals prejudices, perceptions and realities.

Journal of Antimicrobial Chemotherapy, 53. Retrieved from http://jac.oxfordjournals.org/content/53/1/26.full.pdf


If you would like to see previous comments or leave comments about this website, click on the comment button below.