In search of a remedy for (unnecessary) antibiotics: oh, look Biochar!

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Having grown up on a beef farm, I am no stranger to the need to medicate cows but honestly, do we need to sprinkle this stuff into their daily feed rations?   A recent study by the John Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, called  ‘Industrial Food Animal Production in America”, highlights concerns that make my stomach feel like I might need antibiotics!  Their number one recommendation calls for phasing out and banning non-therapeutic use (i.e. weight gain and prevention of disease) of antimicrobials. They are definitely not happy with the FDA’s (rather toothless) ‘voluntary plan’ that would promote the suggestion that Big Pharma should phase out the use of 200+ antibiotics used for animals over three years (there are over 600 antibiotics in use).

But let’s be pragmatic for a moment, shall we?   The reality is that the owners of large feedlots (aka CAFOs) are capitalists at heart.  Most are focused on producing the most meat at the least cost and since the cost of feed can vary with the wind (well more accurately with the rain), any way to minimize feed costs is given more than a once over.  Enter the ‘miracle’ of antibiotic feed additives.  Not only do they act as a prophylactic and stave off illnesses which the crowded conditions often promote but they also improve feed efficiency!  Needless to say the longer term consequences of daily antibiotic intake such as the impact on the environment (i.e. contamination of air, water & soils) as well as on humans (i.e. increased resistance to antibiotics) are largely being ignored or blurred by the suggestion that the jury is still out on these long term impacts (sounds a lot like climate change in general!)

OK enough depressing news.  The GOOD news is that there are some tantalizing studies that show that biochar could be a more natural substitute.  These studies suggest that biochar could provide similar benefits AND more, not least of which is that biochar is not only not damaging to the environment but is restorative, nor does it have a negative impact on human health.

Last week I wrote about the study that indicates improved feed efficiency has been found as a result of feeding char to cows, but this study from the Ithaka Institute has shown significant health related improvements when biochar is added to livestock feed.  So with a healthier alternative available and an increasingly savvy and vocal consumer base, perhaps the ‘hay day’ of feeding antibiotics to cows may soon come to an end and Char-gain (or whatever names the producers come up with) may soon be found in every cow’s trough!


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