A Philosopher's Blog

Antibiotics & the Cost of Agriculture

Posted in Business, Environment, Ethics, Law, Medicine/Health, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on May 23, 2016

Modern agriculture does deserve considerable praise for the good that it does. Food is plentiful, relatively cheap and easy to acquire. Instead of having to struggle with raising crops and livestock or hunting and gathering, I can simply drive to the supermarket and stock up with the food I need to not die. However, as with all things, there is a price.

The modern agricultural complex is now highly centralized and industrialized, which does have its advantages and disadvantages. There are also the harms of specific, chosen practices aimed at maximizing profits. While there are many ways to maximize profits, two common ones are to pay the lowest wages possible (which the agricultural industry does—and not just to the migrant laborers, but to the ranchers and farmers) and to shift the costs to others. I will look, briefly, at one area of cost shifting: the widespread use of antibiotics in meat production.

While most people think of antibiotics as a means of treating diseases, food animals are now routinely given antibiotics when they are healthy. One reason for this is to prevent infections: factory farming techniques, as might be imagined, vastly increase the chances of a disease spreading like wildfire among an animal population. Antibiotics, it is claimed, can help reduce the risk of bacterial infections (antibiotics are useless against viruses, of course). A second reason is that antibiotics increase the growth rate of healthy animals, allowing them to pack on more meat in less time—and time is money. These uses allow the industry to continue factory farming and maintain high productivity—which initially seems laudable. The problem is, however, that this use of antibiotics comes with a high price that is paid for by everyone else.

Eric Schlosser wrote “A Safer Food Future, Now”, which appeared in the May 2016 issue of Consumer Reports. In this article, he notes that this practice has contributed significantly to the rise of antibiotic resistant bacteria. Each year, about two million Americans are infected with resistant strains and about 20,000 die. The healthcare cost is about $20 billion. To be fair, the agricultural industry is not the only contributor to this problem: improper use of antibiotics in humans has also added to this problem. That said, the agricultural use of antibiotics accounts for about 75% of all antibiotic usage in the United States, thus converting the factory farms into for resistant bacteria.

The harmful consequences of this antibiotic use have been known for years and there have, not surprisingly, been attempts to address this through legislation. It should, however, come as little surprise that our elected leaders have failed to take action. One likely explanation is that the lobbying on the part of the relevant corporations has been successful in preventing action. After all these is a strong incentive on the part of industry to keep antibiotics in use: this increases profits by enabling factory farming and the faster growth of animals. That said, it could be contended that the lawmakers are ignorant of the harms, doubt there are harms from antibiotics or honestly believe that the harms arising from their use are outweighed by the benefits to society. That is, the lawmakers have credible reasons other than straight up political bribery (or “lobbying” as it is known in polite company). This is a factual matter, albeit one that is difficult to settle: no professional politician who has been swayed by lobbying will attribute her decision to any but the purist of motivations.

This matter is certainly one of ethical concern and, like most large scale ethical matters that involves competing interests, is one that seems best approached by utilitarian considerations. On the side of using the antibiotics, there is the increased productivity (and profits) of the factory farming system of producing food. This allows more and cheaper food to be provided to the population, which can be regarded as pluses. The main reasons to not use the antibiotics, as noted above, are that they contribute to the creation of antibiotic resistant strains that sicken and kill many people (vastly more Americans than are killed by terrorism). This inflicts considerable costs on the sickened and those who are killed as well as those who care about them. There are also the monetary costs in the health care system (although the increased revenue can be tagged as a plus for health care providers). In addition to these costs, there are also other social and economic costs, such as lost hours of work. As this indicates, the cost (illness, death, etc.) of the use of the antibiotics is shifted: the industry does not pay these costs, they are paid by everyone else.

Using a utilitarian calculation requires weighing the cost to the general population against the profits of the industry and the claimed benefits to the general population. Put roughly, the moral question is whether the improved profits and greater food production outweigh the illness, deaths and costs suffered by the public. The people in the government seem to believe that the answer is “yes.”

If the United States were in a food crisis in which the absence of the increased productivity afforded by antibiotics would cause more suffering and death than their presence, then their use would be morally acceptable. However, this does not seem to be the case—while banning this sort of antibiotic use would decrease productivity (and impact profits), the harm of doing this would seem to be vastly exceeded by the reduction in illness, deaths and health care costs. However, if an objective assessment of the matter showed that the ban on antibiotics would not create more benefits than harms, then it would be reasonable and morally acceptable to continue to use them. This is partially a matter of value (in terms of how the harms and benefits are weighted) and partially an objective matter (in terms of monetary and health costs). I am inclined to agree that the general harm of using the antibiotics exceeds the general benefits, but I could be convinced otherwise by objective data.


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The Temple of Rats

Posted in Pathfinder by Michael LaBossiere on June 28, 2012

A Pathfinder compatible adventure for character levels 10-12.


While the canines and horses fought alongside their beloved humans during the war of the First Kingdom, the cats, mice and rats debated among themselves. Eventually most of the cats threw their lot in with the humans and even the normally timorous mice elected to side with humanity against the demons (the human mastery of cheese was instrumental winning over the mice). The rats, however, remained undecided at the start of the war. Their deity, the Rat God, remained neutral in the conflict and did not side with the forces of order or the demonic forces.

While the rats mainly lived in human cities, they remembered well that before the war humans had attempted to be rid of their kind, often by employing cats. While most of the rats remained technically neutral, some of them actively aided the demons or at least benefited from their actions. A small number of rats did join the battle with the demons and legend says that they were rewarded for this role by being transformed into the ratfolk. While some scholars debate this, others claim that the rats that allegedly became the ratfolk were actually the victim of a curse.

While the First Kingdom fell before the onslaught from the Abyss, humanity survived. While the humans brought their loyal horses, dogs and cats (and even the mice) with them to new lands, the rats simply tagged along having grown accustomed to dwelling within and under the cities of humans.

The gods of order rewarded the heroes of the war, famously granting the cats the golden cows. When the rats pushed their way forward to demand their reward, the gods turned away from them—with few exceptions they had done nothing worthy of reward during the war. Angered by this, the rats demanded a reward. In response, the cats mocked the rats, offering them the spilled milk left on the ground from their magic milk feast. Enraged by this, the rats made to attack the cats, but were driven away by the roars of the great cats. These rats fled into the dark and hidden places and plotted their vengeance over the centuries.

The rats were able to kill a few of the golden cows and were overjoyed when they learned that only one cow remained. They were dismayed when the gods intervened and placed it within a dungeon, promising that if it were found by a cat, then the line of cows would be restored with the birth of golden calves.

Determined to prevent this from happening, the Sewer Gang (a thieves guild composed of wererats) dispatched agents to find the location of the dungeon of leche and to ensure that anyone able to acquire the cow would meet a terrible fate—along with the last cow.

While the Sewer Rats failed in their first attempt to kill the golden cow, they learned that they will have a second change at revenge. According to the decree of the gods, the golden cow must be returned to the temple where it was housed and only then will it give birth to golden calves. To prevent this from happening, the rats long ago took over the abandoned temple and stole the altar from it.

Available  on Amazon.


The Temple of Rats Monsters & Maps PDF

See paizo.com/pathfinderRPG for more information on the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game.

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The Dungeon of Leche

Posted in Pathfinder by Michael LaBossiere on June 16, 2012

A Pathfinder compatible adventure for character levels 10-12.


During the beginning of the Third Cycle of the endless Abyssal War, the First Kingdom fell before the onslaught of the demons. During this long war humans and their allies fought bravely thus allowing the human race to survive the fall of this mighty kingdom. As always, the horses and canines fought alongside their beloved humans thus earning great honors from the gods of goodness. Somewhat reluctantly, the cats became involved in the war as well. While some cats went to the side of the demons, many of them elected to fight against the horrors of the abyss alongside the humans (but far away from the dogs). Some claim that the catfolk were granted sentience for the bold service of their feline ancestors during the battles of this war. Scholars, however, note that records predating the fall of the First Kingdom make mention of the catfolk-or at least a similar race.

While the First Kingdom was destroyed, the gods dispensed rewards to those heroes who survived the war. The cats that fought the demons were granted their due rewards and these included the gift of magical golden cows. According to the ancient tales, the cows produced magical milk in the morning and then an endless supply of delicious milk the remainder of the day.

While it is said that the cats received many golden cows as gifts, it is also said that eventually there was but one cow remaining. The others had been lost to chance, murder, or negligence. The last remaining golden cow was taken to the greatest Temple of the Cats to be protected by an elite guard of priests. At first, the milk of the cow was distributed freely among those visiting the temple and any cat could claim his or her share of the milk. However, the priests eventually became covetous and began to demand coin in return for the milk and even kept the magical milk for themselves.

After his subjects informed him of this transgression, the king of the cats demanded that the priests make the milk available to all cats. The priests refused and thus earned the ire of the gods.

Because of the selfishness of the priests, the gods sent their agents to curse the priests with endless thirst and to take away the golden cow. However, the just gods ruled that if a cat were cunning enough to learn the location of the golden cow, brave enough to reach it in its hidden dungeon and generous enough to share the milk, then the golden cow would be returned. The merciful gods decreed further that the rescued cow would give birth to golden calves to be shared with catkind. To ensure that the cats would have a tough time of it, the gods turned over the creation of the dungeon to Yote, a god of trickery. Unfortunately, he allowed his nephew Scradoo(best known for malicious pranks)  to help design the dungeon. After it was completed, the dungeon was given appropriate canine and milk based guardians.

Since that time many a cunning cat has set out on the search for the golden cow. However, all have failed. While the very cunning were sometimes able to find it, they either perished in the dungeon or failed the final test.

Now is the time for new heroes to face the challenge of the Dungeon of Leche.

Available on Amazon.


Dungeon of Leche Monsters & Maps PDF

See paizo.com/pathfinderRPG for more information on the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game.

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