Contact: Laurel Hamers


WOODS HOLE, Mass.- In hospitals across the country, doctors guard against casual use of antibiotics: overuse of these powerful drugs encourages the emergence of drug-resistant bacterial strains that pose a public health threat. On our farms, however, it’s a different story. The discovery that antibiotics could improve yields in livestock production was made in 1948, at the start of the antibiotic era, and within a decade the drugs’ administration to farm animals for non-medical purposes had become routine.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Author and independent journalist Maryn McKenna, a senior fellow at the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism at Brandeis University, will address the use of antibiotics in agriculture—and the tradeoff this practice sets up between public health and the economic benefits of increased farm productivity—in a lecture at the Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL) on Saturday, July 26. McKenna’s talk, “Losing the Miracle: The FDA and the Controversy over Livestock Antibiotics,” will take place at 7:00 PM in the MBL’s Lillie Auditorium, 7 MBL Street, Woods Hole. The event is free and open to the public. Parking is available in the MBL parking lots.

By 1969, the first alarms had been raised that antibiotic-resistant bacteria that developed on farms could spread to human populations through manure, runoff, meat and even farm workers themselves. Consequently, in 1977, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration proposed withdrawing its approvals of penicillin and tetracycline for agricultural use. The agency was persistently stymied in its efforts, and 37 years later, it has finally succeeded in implementing only voluntary controls. While Europe has imposed outright bans on growth promoters and there are country-specific controls on other antibiotic uses, non-therapeutic use of antibiotics remains common in U.S. agriculture. Simultaneously, public health, medical, and even Congressional opposition have risen—and so has the rate of emergence of antibiotic resistance worldwide.

Maryn McKenna

Maryn McKenna

McKenna, winner of the 2013 Byron H. Waksman Award for Excellence in the Public Communication of Life Sciences, primarily writes about public health, global health, and food policy. She was the 2013-2014 Knight Science Journalism Project Fellow at MIT and a finalist for a James Beard Foundation Award. She writes and blogs for numerous national publications, including Wired, Scientific American, and National Geographic’s The Plate, and is also the author of the award-winning popular science books SUPERBUG: The Fatal Menace of MRSA (2010) and Beating Back the Devil: On the Front Lines with the Disease Detectives of the Epidemic Intelligence Service (2004). McKenna is currently writing a book on antibiotic use in agriculture, to be published by National Geographic in 2015.

The Byron H. Waksman Award for Excellence in the Public Communication of Life Sciences is awarded annually by the Waksman Foundation to an institution or individual who demonstrates excellence in the communication of some aspect of life sciences. McKenna’s lecture at the MBL is sponsored by the Waksman Foundation and the MBL’s Logan Science Journalism Program.


The Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL) is dedicated to scientific discovery and improving the human condition through research and education in biology, biomedicine, and environmental science. Founded in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, in 1888, the MBL is a private, nonprofit institution and an affiliate of the University of Chicago.