Citrus Farmers Facing Deadly Bacteria Turn to Antibiotics, Alarming Health Officials - The New York Times
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 Administration and 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.
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.
Créer du doute là où il n’y en a pas, au nom de la science évidemment... une science « complète » qui est impossible avec le vivant, donc un argument qui pourra toujours servir.
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.
Taw Richardson, the chief executive of ArgoSource, which makes the antibiotics used by farmers, said the company has yet to see any resistance in the 14 years since it began selling bactericides. “We don’t take antibiotic resistance lightly,” he said. “The key is to target the things that contribute to resistance and not get distracted by things that don’t.”
Many scientists disagree with such assessments, noting the mounting resistance to both drugs in humans. They also cite studies suggesting that low concentrations of antibiotics that slowly seep into the environment over an extended period of time can significantly accelerate resistance.
Scientists at the C.D.C. were especially concerned about streptomycin, which can remain in the soil for weeks and is allowed to be sprayed several times a season. As part of its consultation with the F.D.A., the C.D.C. conducted experiments with the two drugs and found widespread resistance to them.
Although the Trump administration has been pressing the E.P.A. to loosen regulations, Nathan Donley, a senior scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity, said the agency’s pesticides office had a long track record of favoring the interests of chemical and pesticide companies. “What’s in the industry’s best interest will win out over public safety nine times out of 10,” he said.
A spokesman for the E.P.A. said the agency had sought to address the C.D.C.’s and F.D.A.’s concerns about antibiotic resistance by ordering additional monitoring and by limiting its approvals to seven years.