antibiotics 1500.jpg

Reducing Our Dependence On Antibiotics

Reducing Our Dependence On Antibiotics

Our campaign to Save Our Antibiotics got a mention in Parliament last week, during a debate into the increasing level of antibiotic resistance. We were happy to see MPs calling for action, since we have been working to stop the overuse of antibiotics in farming for over 20 years, including as a founder member of the Alliance to Save our Antibiotics, alongside Sustain and Compassion in World Farming.

Antibiotic resistance is a global health crisis. Over the past decades, bacteria have gradually become more and more resistant. If current trends continue and major action is not taken, it is predicted that 10 million lives will be lost globally every year by 2050 with an estimated 25,000 deaths in the EU currently every year.

The House of Commons debate focused on the O’Neill review that was commissioned by the Government to look into the rise in antimicrobial resistance. Chaired by the economist, Lord Jim O’Neill, the review investigated the “profound health and macroeconomic consequences” of antibiotic resistance and concluded that the crisis could be avoided but only if immediate steps were taken.

While many MPs drew attention to the need for reducing prescriptions for antibiotics in human medicine and for initiatives to encourage research into new antibiotics, others highlighted that farm animals account for around two thirds of all antibiotics used in 26 European countries, and around 40% of all antibiotics used in the UK.

Kerry McCarthy MP said in the debate “intensive farming goes hand in hand with the overuse of antibiotics, which is something the Government need to encourage farmers to move away from” since the “higher use in farm animals undermines antibiotics’ effectiveness in human medicine”.

Many intensive livestock farms still feed antibiotics to their animals even when no illness has been diagnosed to compensate for low welfare standards. Although the British Poultry Council recently announced that it had ended this practice during 2016, pig farmers have yet to make a similar commitment. Cramped conditions with inadequate ventilation can make disease outbreaks common and hard to control, and early weaning of piglets make them much more prone to diarrhoea.

In her comments, Dr Caroline Johnson MP called for much more stringent measures to limit over prescribing in livestock farming. She said that “minimising the growth of antimicrobial resistance through our agricultural practices is of great importance and must be tackled with the same vigour with which we have addressed the use of antibiotics in human medicine”.

Through our work with the Alliance to Save Our Antibiotics, we’re asking for EU-wide reductions of all farm antibiotic use by 50% by 2020 and by 80% by 2050. 

Part of this target must be a reduction in the use of critically important antibiotics by 80% by 2020 and 95% by 2025.

Beyond these ambitious targets we’re also asking the UK government to;

  • ban the routine preventative use of antibiotics in groups of entirely healthy animals,
  • ban all preventative use of the ‘critically important’ antibiotics and all mass medication with these antibiotics,
  • include measures to improve animal health and welfare in all antibiotic-reduction strategies

However, we’re mindful that tackling this issue requires international cooperation too. As Kevin Hollinrake MP said “bacteria do not recognise national borders” - so an integrated global strategy needs to be adopted to address the issue, and it must be considered by the UK Government when negotiating new international trade deals. 

But how can we reduce our dependence on antibiotics?

There is a risk that curbing antibiotic use in livestock farming could see a shift towards ever more sterile livestock systems, which would be harmful to the welfare of farm animals. It is imperative that high standards of animal welfare are incorporated into farm antibiotic-reduction strategies.

As Chi Onwurah MP commented, there are other ways of preventing infections.  Under Soil Association standards, animals are allowed to roam and root around outside and so build up natural resistance and remain healthier for longer. Slower growing breeds, smaller herd sizes and later weaning of piglets also help to keep animals keep healthy, reducing the need for antibiotics.

To help farmers fight infection without antibiotics, our Innovative Farmers network, part of the Duchy Future Farming, has conducted on-the-ground research to reduce antibiotic treatment of mastitis in cows and has already produced positive results. This has helped reduce antibiotic use and make high-welfare farming more cost-effective for dairy farmers.

The rise in antibiotic resistance is a major public-health threat and we must act now if we’re to avert a crisis scenario. We know what we need to do and we have the tools but we must now push for the Government to implement the strategy and act to save our antibiotics before it’s too late.