As a scientist and former cancer researcher, I’m the family pusher when it comes to fresh veggies and fruit.
And like millions of other American families, my family loves citrus fruits. Oranges, grapefruits, tangerines, you name it.
So I found it disturbing that, under cover of the final days of last week’s holiday rush, the Trump EPA quietly proposed on Dec. 21 to approve the spraying of the medically important antibiotic streptomycin on nearly half a million acres of the nation’s citrus, almost all of it here in Florida.
We can only assume the Trump EPA chose not to follow the normal, transparent course of alerting the public to their proposal by immediately publishing it in the Federal Register – which tracks all actions of federal agencies – because it has no interest in what any of us has to say.
Above all, they want to steer clear of any input from scientists who understand why, despite citrus growers’ need to fight off citrus greening disease, the use of medically important antibiotics as agricultural pesticides is a short-term answer with dangerous long-term consequences.
Due to rising consumer outcry, antibiotic use is starting to drop in animals on factory farms. That’s a good thing, but those gains are going to be erased if we start using massive amounts of these important medicines as pesticides.
Even a young child can understand why using more antibiotics now is a losing long-term proposition: In effect, the more we use antibiotics, the more likely that human pathogens that are unaffected by the drugs will survive and multiply. It’s simple evolution – a reality that’s playing out across the globe.
As the first drug to effectively fight tuberculosis, the top infectious disease killer in the world, streptomycin offers a clear-eyed example of the tools we might lose if we keep using medically important antibiotics for agricultural purposes.
Yet, even though streptomycin is considered critical to protecting human health worldwide, the EPA is proposing to approve the use of more than 650,000 pounds on citrus groves in Florida and California each year. For comparison, Americans use roughly 14,000 pounds of aminoglycosides, the antibiotic class that contains streptomycin, each year to treat disease.
In doing so, the Trump administration is ignoring warnings from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, World Health Organization and United Nations that the unchecked escalation of antibiotic resistance is one of the world’s most pressing public health problems.
That’s not to say the problem of citrus greening isn’t a serious one – this disease has devastated the Florida citrus industry and the livelihoods of many lifelong farmers. But spraying streptomycin is not a cure and it won’t prevent the disease from spreading. It’s approved as a chronic, long-term treatment – the sprayings will take place three times a year every year – precisely the kind of routine dumping into the environment of these important medicines that we can’t have.
Carelessly increasing use of important antibiotics as pesticides at the same time leading health experts worldwide are calling for a dramatic reduction in their use is sure to contribute to a much larger problem than the one it is trying to fix.
And the scope of the problem is stunning: According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention more than 2 million people are infected with antibiotic-resistant organisms every year, leading to more than 20,000 deaths.
The EPA is all too familiar with what happens when a chemical is overused. The overuse of glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup, has fueled the growth of glyphosate-resistant superweeds across millions of U.S. acres. The EPA-approved solution is to spray a more dangerous pesticide – dicamba – on fields in addition to glyphosate.
This is called the pesticide treadmill and whether you are trying to kill weeds, insects or the bacteria that causes citrus greening disease, your pesticide weapon of choice is going to eventually lose its effectiveness. At which point the next quick fix is to simply pile on anything else that might work while human and environmental health pay the price.
Common-sense restrictions on the use of medically important drugs like streptomycin are central to combatting the increase of antibiotic-resistant bacteria that trigger everything from hospital catheter infections to gonorrhea and tuberculosis.
Instead, the Trump EPA has foolishly chosen to help accelerate the ability of dangerous bacteria to fight off some of our most important medicines.
Nathan Donley, Ph.D. is a senior scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity.
“Like” us on Facebook at /OrlandoOpinion