Frohlich on Kirchhelle, 'Pyrrhic Progress: The History of Antibiotics in Anglo-American Food Production'

Claas Kirchhelle
Xaq Frohlich

Claas Kirchhelle. Pyrrhic Progress: The History of Antibiotics in Anglo-American Food Production. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2020. 450 pp. $59.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8135-9147-6; $120.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8135-9148-3; $59.95 (e-book), ISBN 978-0-8135-9149-0. 

Reviewed by Xaq Frohlich (Auburn University) Published on H-Environment (May, 2021) Commissioned by Daniella McCahey (Texas Tech University)

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“FARMERS — NOT PHARMACISTS,” declared a 1960 Pfizer veterinary pharmaceutical advertisement directed at British farmers. The product? A vitamin feed supplement for pigs that included an antibiotic which would increase the pigs’ nutrient uptake, thereby helping them grow fast on feed (p. 103). When used to treat humans, the antibiotic, terramycin, was very much a medicine whose use was regulated through pharmacists. Not so for animal feed. The Pfizer product, a class of products known in the agriculture industry as antibiotic growth promoters, fell into a legal loophole. For low-level, routine, and nontherapeutic use on otherwise healthy pigs, farmers did not have to bother with a pharmacist or even a veterinarian. Pfizer’s assertion that farmers were not pharmacists, however, sat at the center of a heated debate among government regulators, drug manufacturers, and different medical and veterinary professional associations over this increasingly common post-WWII industrial farming practice: was farmers’ widespread use of antibiotics in animal feed contributing to antimicrobial resistance that affected the human use of antibiotics? Should farmers be trusted with such a vital weapon in medicine’s armory against infections in human health? This important policy question would repeatedly slip between the cracks of public attention and the “fragmentation of perceptions” (p. 7) of those communities of experts or policy institutions that might have addressed it. In much the same way, the important subject of veterinary pharmaceuticals in industrial farming has largely landed in the margins of most histories of modern agriculture, environment, and medicine.

Claas Kirchhelle’s Pyrrhic Progress provides a much-needed and painstakingly researched history of the nonhuman use of antibiotics in livestock production and the professional turf wars and policy debates that have followed their use in farming since the 1940s. The main strengths and weaknesses of this book arise from how it is organized. The book looks comparatively at two national cases: the United States and Britain. To tell these two narratives Kirchhelle divides the book into four parts. Parts 1 and 2 look at each country from the 1940s to 1960s, a story of the post-WWII industrialization of farming, which among other things involved growing markets for agro-pharmaceuticals. Parts 3 and 4 continue those national narratives from the late 1960s to the present, as governments and industry responded to increasingly compelling evidence that agricultural use of antibiotics was contributing to antimicrobial resistance.

Kirchhelle makes good use of comparing national “risk cultures” (p. 7) and different political contexts to show how farm regulation evolves differently for the same products in different places. Britain’s “corporatist” system of decision-making meant that most disagreements between regulators and companies over safety and risk were kept behind doors, within expert committees. Public reports like the 1969 Swann Report threaded a needle between pressuring companies to curb the overuse of antibiotics while endorsing corporate self-regulation (p. 93). Britain’s membership in the European Economic Community’s Common Agricultural Policy introduced an exogenous European pressure for increasingly stricter regulatory oversight and precaution. It also provoked what Kirchhelle calls “Swann patriotism” (p. 218), a nationalist tactic presaging Brexit politics today, wherein farm associations and pharmaceutical industries exploited the positive image of post-Swann reforms to justify continued self-regulation and to argue, often in the face of contrary evidence, that Britain’s meat supply was better and safer than in other countries. The US system entailed more open antagonisms between a regulation-averse pharmaceutical industry and an exasperated Food and Drug Administration, but what eventually emerged was a voluntarist approach centered on “antibiotic-free” labeling. This “privatization of antibiotic risk” meant that in the United States, “the market … gradually replaced the state as the de facto driver of antibiotic change” (p. 161).

The comparative story comes across clearly. However, the further subdivision of each of the four parts of the book into three chapters that examine distinct policy spheres (resulting in a total of twelve chapters), gives the impression one is reading three separate books in parallel: one on public debates, another looking at farm markets and agricultural policy, and a third providing an institutional study of key regulatory organizations. The result is a lot of confusing chronological skipping and returning to events that were discussed in previous chapters.

The broader story Pyrrhic Progress tells is about making policy in the face of scientific uncertainty. Kirchhelle offers policymakers four morals from this story: the dangerous tendency toward “short-termism” in the face of an impending slow disaster of antimicrobial resistance; the equally dangerous tendency toward “epistemic fragmentation,” where interprofessional rivalries lead to solutions that are focused on specific parts of and not the whole problem; the persistence of “antibiotic infrastructures,” which is the author’s challenge to “simplistic narratives of irresponsible ‘pharmers’” (p. 287) who, he argues, are overpowered by market “path dependencies” and a “cost-price squeeze”; and a patchwork of “narrow reform” that reflects the compromises and quick fixes that arise from the previous three.

These arcane policy lessons touch on big issues for twentieth-century environmental history: changing ideas about environmental health and risk, the rise of corporate control and market-driven regulation, and the industrialization of foodways increasingly divorced from local natural ecologies. Pyrrhic Progress adds to a growing literature on the chemical revolution that has transformed modern agriculture and the environment more broadly. It adds to a vibrant literature on animal studies which is bringing down conceptual walls that falsely divide the history of humans from that of other animals. Surprisingly, Kirchhelle missed an opportunity to consider the recent One Health Movement, which promisingly seeks to address many of his concerns about epistemic fragmentation, but which does not appear in this book.

Pyrrhic Progress will leave the reader convinced that the story of antibiotics in farming is an important one. When Kirchhelle describes in chapter 11, “Between Swann Patriotism and BSE,” how Britain’s BSE or “mad cow” crisis in the 1990s prompted a moral panic about intensive “factory farming,” it is not hard for the reader to see why contemporaries were so quick to view BSE “as the tip of an agro-industrial iceberg kept afloat by antibiotics” (p. 226). Unfortunately, it often falls to the reader to draw out what are the book’s unique contributions, as they can be buried in the whir of statistics about changes in agricultural sectors or by Kirchhelle’s many cross-linkages throughout the book to other significant food policy programs of the past.

Pyrrhic Progress is a policy wonk’s history. It is information-rich and a treasure trove of compelling facts and historical exposition on many of the popular debates and key institutions that have made not just food and agriculture, but also science and medicine increasingly subject to powerful market forces. While not an easy read, it will likely be a reference on this topic for years to come.

Citation: Xaq Frohlich. Review of Kirchhelle, Claas, Pyrrhic Progress: The History of Antibiotics in Anglo-American Food Production. H-Environment, H-Net Reviews. May, 2021. URL:

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