A yeast is killing immunocompromised patients in hospitals, clinics, and nursing homes at a fast pace — up to 40-60% of those who suffer bloodstream infections now die in a month’s time. The reason for the rise in patient deaths is agricultural applications, which generate drug resistance across multiple human bacterial infections. This drug resistance kills 23,000-100,000 in the US annually. If you extend that death toll to global infections, we’re looking at 700,000 people worldwide.
Shame on you, industrial agriculture.
It is becoming increasingly apparent that a yeast called Candida auris (C. auris) has resistance that is traceable to industrial agriculture’s mass application of fungicides. These chemicals approximate the molecular structures of antifungal drugs and that of many other fungi species.
Independent Science News for Food and Agriculture (ISNFA) has published an article titled, “A Lethal Industrial Farm Fungus Is Spreading Among Us.” In this literature review, which is an examination of current research studies, authors Liebman and Wallace trace data that independently points to the connection of crop protection, medical settings, and the increasing risk emerging from naturally occurring opportunistic and antifungal resistant pathogens.
Across crops — wheat, banana, barley, and apple, among many others — the fungicides select for resistant strains that find their way into hospitals, where they are also resistant to the drugs administered to patients. C. auris’ resistance, and that of many other fungi species, approximate the molecular structures of antifungal drugs.
In the rooms of the infected and the dead, C. auris appears intransigent to nearly all attempts at eradication. The fungus can survive even a floor-to-ceiling spray of aerosolized hydrogen peroxide.
Why are Antibiotics so Prevalent in Agriculture?
Let me ask you a question. Why does industrial agriculture consume 80% of US antibiotics?
“To promote livestock and poultry growth,” you answer.
Yes, you’re partially right. But these enormous amounts of antibiotics are also used to protect the animals from the bacterial consequences of the manure-laden environments in which they are grown. In other words, because it costs money to clean and rotate habitats, today’s farm animals stand in their own shit. They need beaucoup amounts of antibiotics to fend off the effects of these living conditions.
The consequences of such inhuman practices of raising creatures in squalor of 2015 amounted to 34 million pounds a year of antibiotics.
Emerging resistance to antifungal drugs and fungicides is compromising our ability to treat fungal diseases in humans, livestock, and crops, necessitating new approaches to control endemic and emerging infections.
The CDC reports 90% of C. auris infections are clocking in resistant to one antifungal drug and 30% to 2 or more.
C. auris has evolved resistance to a suite of antifungals. The dangers of continuing upon this path of agricultural development are acute, as strains isolated by distance from each other evolved unique solutions to the fungicides to which they were exposed. “So we shouldn’t be surprised that in applying these fungicides at landscape scales in the millions of pounds annually,” the ISNFA authors argue, saying that the medical use of antifungals, using the same mode of action, would rapidly turn ineffective.
Different Paths to the Same Resistance
Medical and agricultural fungicides share similar modes of action, so when resistance pops up in one arena, it is easily transferable to another. Instead of intervening in the interests of global public health to limit these long-problematic applications, government policy in recent years has promoted the lucrative global expansion of fungicide use, fostering the conditions for virulent drug-resistant fungi.
- In 2009, fungicides were applied on 30% of corn, soybean, and wheat acreage in the US, totaling 80 million acres.
- Preventative use of fungicides to control soybean rust quadrupled between 2002 and 2006, despite a dubious economic rationale. Global sales continue to skyrocket, nearly tripling since 2005, from $8 billion to $21 billion in 2017.
- Boscalid, a fungicide used in fruit and vegetable crops, has increased from ~ 0.15 to 0.6 million pounds from 2004 to 2016, a 400% increase, and is now widely applied across the country.
- In 2012, USGS scientists studied 33 different fungicides used in potato production and found at least one fungicide in 75% of tested surface waters and 58% of ground water samples. With half-lives stretching to several months, azole fungicides are able to easily reach and persist in aquatic environments by runoff and spray drift, becoming highly mobile.
As climate change fundamentally reshapes the US, bringing higher overall temperatures and extreme oscillations between drought and heavy rainfall, fungi are predicted to expand outside of their current ranges while also responding specifically to new climate regimes. With the market treated as a force of nature stronger than climate or public health, under current agricultural production, broad-spectrum fungicide use is likely only to increase.
Working toward New Agricultural Solutions to Fungal Resistance
In response to drug-resistant bacteria and fungi, research institutions are calling for the collection of better data on agricultural antibiotic use and on the potential economic costs of transitioning away from from high rates of application.
Given recent travails in antibiotic and herbicide resistance, it seems likely that chemical companies and their farming clients will pursue developing new fungicides based on targeted molecular research, multiple drug cocktails, and gene-edited resistance.
Governmental agencies are likely to impose increased biosecurity measures. The authors state that these measures frequently “foment xenophobic anxieties and are used to blame workers for contamination, rather than addressing the systemic failures of industrial agriculture.” They add that the dual motives of powerful medical and agricultural companies are almost certain to promote “solutions that exacerbate an arms race between toxic drug applications and fungal resistance, spew growing permutations of lethal chemicals into the environment, and further consolidate and privatize the agro-pharmaceutical sector.”
The authors point to alternatives already in current practice that contain regimens which are important for controlling fungal pathogens.
- In California’s Central Valley, strawberry producers accustomed to fumigating soils with fungicides to control incidence of Verticillium wilt, a pathogenic soil fungi, have found that planting broccoli crops in between rotations of strawberry crops greatly reduced levels of Verticillium.
- Dating back several decades, similar results have been found in the diversification of potato crop rotations.
- Researchers in India—a country where drug-resistant A. fumigatus and C. auris have both been found—apply large doses of azole fungicides to control for fungal pathogens such as late blight.
- In general, organic farming supports mutualistic fungi to a much greater degree than conventional farming, crowding out pathogenic strains. Crop rotations, the incorporation of legumes, and the cultivation of soil aggregates support ecological niches for soil microbiota.
- Reducing chemical fertilizers and limiting tillage, two agroecological practices with major benefits for reduced pollution and enhanced carbon storage, also select for beneficial strains of arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi that form mutualistic relationships with plant roots and can confer resistance to soil pathogens.
- Integrating agricultural production into a broader matrix of non-crop vegetation is also important for controlling fungal pathogens. Wild landscapes reduce the potential for pathogen populations to adapt to crops and modeling suggests that contiguous swaths of wild patches reduce the aggressiveness of pathogens upon agricultural crops.
Nature = Biggest Competition to Big Agriculture
Recognizing that the agribusiness sector views nature as its stiffest competition is a necessary starting place. The sector wipes out local ecologies. The largest companies can now sell commodified equivalents to a captured market that requires efficient solutions to soil, water, pollination, livestock feed, and pest control through use of solutions like pathogenic fungi.
“The damage done is more than agricultural or economic,” Liebman and Wallace concur. “It’s a business plan pursued even at the risk of eroding our capacity to socially reproduce ourselves as a civilization.”
Alex Liebman is a plant-soil and political ecology researcher with Lurralde, a Chilean group supporting the Atacameña and Ayamara peoples in their struggle for territorial sovereignty and water rights in the face of multinational copper and lithium mining interests in the Atacama Desert.
Rob Wallace, PhD, is an evolutionary biologist and public health phylogeographer. He’s the author of “Big Farms Make Big Flu” and, most recently, co-author of “Clear-Cutting Disease Control.”
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