The unmitigated use of antibiotics in agriculture is pushing humanity into a global public health crisis, a new paper by a University of Calgary professor states.

U of C economics professor Aidan Hollis says the overabundance of antibiotics being used by the agriculture and aquaculture industries is increasingly putting the health of humans at risk and he suggests implementing a user fee on the non-human use of antibiotics in order to curb the practice.

In a newly released paper published in the New England Journal of Medicine, Hollis says the widespread use of antibiotics is helping bacteria become resistant to the most effective defence humans have against the microbes - antibiotics.

"Modern medicine relies on antibiotics to kill off bacterial infections," says Hollis.

"This is incredibly important. Without effective antibiotics, any surgery - even minor ones - will become extremely risky.

"Cancer therapies, similarly, are dependent on the availability of effective antimicrobials. Ordinary infections will kill otherwise healthy people."

Hollis, along with study co-author Ziana Ahmed, states that in the U.S., 80 per cent of antibiotics are used by the agriculture and aquaculture industries, not by people.

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antibiotics use

Those antibiotics enter the environment when they are sprayed on trees or put in the feed of cattle, poultry or salmon, said Hollis, adding there's mounting evidence that suggests the flood of antimicrobials into the land and water is leading to the creation of pathogens immune to all available treatments.

If unchecked, the practice will lead to the mass emergence of drug-resistant bacteria and a world-wide public health crisis, he warns.

Instituting a user fee for the application of those medical agents, similar to how the oil and gas industry is subject to royalties and the forestry industry to stumping fees, can serve as an economic incentive to move away from the widespread use of antibiotics in the food supply, the study states.

In agriculture and aquaculture, the use of antibiotics is a means of increasing productivity but Hollis argues the economic benefits from the practice are minimal.

"It's about increasing the efficiency of food so you can reduce the amount of grain you feed the cattle," says Hollis.

"It's about giving antibiotics to baby chicks because it reduces the likelihood that they're going to get sick when you cram them together in unsanitary conditions.

"These methods are obviously profitable to the farmers, but that doesn't mean it's generating a huge benefit. In fact, the profitability is usually quite marginal. The real value of antibiotics is saving people from dying."

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