Citrus Farmers Facing Deadly Bacteria Turn to Antibiotics, Alarming Health Officials
Dr. William A. Albrecht, often called the “Father of Soil Fertility” was Chairman of the Department of Soils at the University of Missouri. He was dismissed as an alarmist when speaking about the problems discussed in the article below.
70-years ago he wrote, “The use of sprays is an act of desperation in a dying agriculture. It’s not the overpowering invader we must fear but the weakened condition of the victim.”
An unintended consequence of the chemicals, pesticides and antibiotics increasingly used in our food production, and the genetic monocultures of the crops and livestock we increasingly raise using industrial production methods, is that the plants and animals become more vulnerable to epidemics of parasites and diseases. We respond to this inappropriately – with more chemicals, pesticides and antibiotics. These bring further unintended consequences, followed by more inappropriate reactions in a downward spiral.
Anticipating the dangers this would pose to human health, which is the subject of this article, Professor Albrecht predicted that, “NPK formulas, (nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium) as legislated and enforced by State Departments of Agriculture, mean malnutrition, attack by insects, bacteria and fungi, weed takeover, crop loss in dry weather, and general loss of mental acuity in the population, leading to degenerative metabolic disease and early death.”
In its decision to approve two drugs for orange and grapefruit trees, the E.P.A. largely ignored objections from the C.D.C. and the F.D.A., which fear that expanding their use in cash crops could fuel antibiotic resistance in humans.
ZOLFO SPRINGS, Fla. — A pernicious disease is eating away at Roy Petteway’s orange trees. The bacterial infection, transmitted by a tiny winged insect from China, has evaded all efforts to contain it, decimating Florida’s citrus industry and forcing scores of growers out of business.
In a last-ditch attempt to slow the infection, Mr. Petteway revved up his industrial sprayer one recent afternoon and doused the trees with a novel pesticide: antibiotics used to treat syphilis, tuberculosis, urinary tract infections and a number of other illnesses in humans.
“These bactericides give us hope,” said Mr. Petteway’s son, R. Roy, 33, as he watched his father treat the family’s trees, some of them 50 years old. “Because right now, it’s like we’re doing the doggy paddle without a life preserver and swallowing water.”
Since 2016, the Environmental Protection Agency has allowed Florida citrus farmers to use the drugs, streptomycin and oxytetracycline, on an emergency basis, but the agency is now significantly expanding their permitted use across 764,000 acres in California, Texas and other citrus-producing states. The agency approved the expanded use despite strenuous objections from the Food and Drug Administrationand the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which warn that the heavy use of antimicrobial drugs in agriculture could spur germs to mutate so they become resistant to the drugs, threatening the lives of millions of people.
The E.P.A. has proposed allowing as much as 650,000 pounds of streptomycin to be sprayed on citrus crops each year. By comparison, Americans annually use 14,000 pounds of aminoglycosides, the class of antibiotics that includes streptomycin.
The European Union has banned the agricultural use of both streptomycin and oxytetracycline. So, too, has Brazil, where orange growers are battling the same bacterial scourge, called huanglongbing, also commonly known as citrus greening disease.
“To allow such a massive increase of these drugs in agriculture is a recipe for disaster,” said Steven Roach, a senior analyst for the advocacy group Keep Antibiotics Working. “It’s putting the needs of the citrus industry ahead of human health.”
But for Florida’s struggling orange and grapefruit growers, the approvals could not come soon enough. The desperation is palpable across the state’s sandy midsection, a flat expanse once lushly blanketed with citrus trees, most of them the juice oranges that underpin a $7.2 billion industry employing 50,000 people, about 40,000 fewer than it did two decades ago. These days, the landscape is flecked with abandoned groves and scraggly trees whose elongated yellow leaves are a telltale sign of the disease.
Mr. Petteway says the antibiotics have helped bring many of his trees back to life.
“They used to have pneumonia, but now it’s like they have a cold,” he said, tugging on the waxy, bright green leaf of a tree thick with embryonic, gumball-size fruit.
A temporary approval of the drugs was issued under President Barack Obama, but in December, under President Trump, the E.P.A. gave final approval for a much broader use of oxytetracycline. The agency has also proposed the expanded use of streptomycin under similar terms.
The decision paves the way for the largest use of medically important antibiotics in cash crops, and it runs counter to other efforts by the federal government to reduce the use of lifesaving antimicrobial drugs. Since 2017, the F.D.A. has banned the use of antibiotics to promote growth in farm animals, a shift that has led to a 33 percent drop in sales of antibiotics for livestock.
The use of antibiotics on citrus adds a wrinkle to an intensifying debate about whether the heavy use of antimicrobials in agriculture endangers human health by neutering the drugs’ germ-slaying abilities. Much of that debate has focused on livestock farmers, who use 80 percent of antibiotics sold in the United States.
Although the research on antibiotic use in crops is not as extensive, scientists say the same dynamic is already playing out with the fungicides that are liberally sprayed on vegetables and flowers across the world. Researchers believe the surge in a drug-resistant lung infection called aspergillosis is associated with agricultural fungicides, and many suspect the drugs are behind the rise of Candida auris, a deadly fungal infection.
Drug-resistant infections kill 23,000 Americans each year and sicken two million, according to the C.D.C. As more germs mutate, the threat is growing. With few new medicines in the pipeline, the United Nationssays resistant infections could claim 10 million lives globally by 2050, exceeding deaths from cancer.
Antibiotics sprayed on crops can affect farm workers or people who directly consume contaminated fruit, but scientists are especially worried that the drugs will cause pathogenic bacteria in the soil to become resistant to the compounds and then find their way to people through groundwater or contaminated food. The other fear is that these bacteria will share their drug-resistant mechanisms with other germs, making them, too, impervious to other kinds of antibiotics.
In its evaluation for the expanded use of streptomycin, the E.P.A., which largely relied on data from pesticide makers, said the drug quickly dissipated in the environment. Still, the agency noted that there was a “medium” risk from extending the use of such drugs to citrus crops, and it acknowledged the lack of research on whether a massive increase in spraying would affect the bacteria that infect humans.
“The science of resistance is evolving and there is a high level of uncertainty in how and when resistance occurs,” the agency wrote.
Since its arrival in Florida was first confirmed in 2005, citrus greening has infected more than 90 percent of the state’s grapefruit and orange trees. The pathogen is spread by a tiny insect, the Asian citrus psyllid, that infects trees as it feeds on young leaves and stems, but the evidence of disease can take months to emerge. Infected trees prematurely drop their fruit, most of it too bitter for commercial use.
Officials say it is too early to know how many farmers will embrace the spraying of antibiotics. Interviews with a dozen growers and industry officials suggest many farmers are waiting to see whether the regimen is effective.