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Meat – a looming antibiotic crisis?

The need to curb the rapid growth in industrial livestock systems has been a concern of Friends of the Earth for many years; not least for the harm it is doing to wildlife globally and the heavy pollution load. In our report Healthy Planet Eating we explored the health benefits of changing to more sustainable diets.

Here Rebecca St Clair, a volunteer researcher in our offices, explores another aspect of the rise of factory farming – one which is causing considerable concern in the health as well as environment community.

Vicki Hird, lead on Land Use Food and Water Programme

I’ve known there was a problem with much of modern pig farming for some time. During my studies I investigated the history of livestock intensification and the factors that are currently driving farmers to intensify. This also included a brief analysis of some of the health and welfare issues that can arise as a result of factory farming.

But it’s clear that there is a big but less familiar issue looming. It’s to do with the methods used in intensive livestock farming which are contributing to an impending crisis in which antibiotics will lose their ability to cure infection. The seriousness of the problem is reflected in the Director-General of the World Health Organization’s prediction that we may be heading towards a “postantibiotic era, in which many common infections will no longer have a cure and once again, kill unabated”.

Hearing warnings like this makes me think of a future where simple surgical procedures will not be carried out for fear of life-threatening post-op infections, where routine child-birth may become an extremely dangerous endeavour and where people cannot recover from common infections that were once easily treated. It seems like a remote possibility but it’s a more realistic scenario than many of us realise.

Reading the recent publication of the Government’s “UK Five Year Antimicrobial Resistance Strategy 2013 to 2018” shows the problem of increasing antibiotic resistance and the reality that if we don’t start using antimicrobials more responsibly, more and more infections will become untreatable. Concerns from the US are also evident following the recent Centers for Disease Control report on the growing threat of antibiotic resistance, which warns of the “potentially catastrophic consequences of inaction”.

It’s true that a major part of the problem of antibiotic resistance is misuse in human medicine, but the role of intensive farming systems is worryingly understated by the Government.

In the weeks running up to the publication of the Government’s new strategy, the Alliance to Save Our Antibiotics held a meeting to discuss the problems of antibiotic use in farming systems, where four experts gave compelling presentations on the issue. I was fortunate enough to attend the meeting at which experts highlighted how nearly half of all antibiotics produced in the world are consumed by farm animals.

This is partly due to intensive livestock farming, which frequently relies on the prophylactic (i.e. preventative rather than curative) use of antibiotics in order to keep animals free of certain types of infection. Using antibiotics at low doses before the animal actually becomes ill is causing big problems as resistant strains of bacteria are evolving, leading to some antibiotics becoming less effective. In doing this we’re essentially actively selecting for strains of bacteria that are able to resist the very medication designed to get rid of them as most bacteria die from the antibiotic while the resistant bacteria survive and multiply.

This is a major health concern for humans, as the rate at which new classes of antibiotics are being developed has been decreasing and the instances of untreatable infections are on the rise. An indication of how pressing the issue has become is demonstrated by a recent link between human deaths from an E. coli superbug and antibiotic use in intensive chicken production.

I was pleased to hear there are some countries taking action. In Denmark, vets are no longer allowed to sell antibiotics (except for emergencies) so they cannot benefit financially from prescribing medication. This separation of sales and advice removes the incentive for prescribing too much and encourages vets and farmers to focus on better management and disease prevention. Herds are monitored at a national level for the amount of antibiotics they consume and farms are inspected if overdosing is suspected.

Surely another part of the solution must be adjusting our dietary expectations and our farming systems. We should be supporting farming methods, such as organic, high-welfare systems, where good health and welfare are the norm and where precious resources, such as antibiotics, are used appropriately to treat sick animals.

It’s important to consume less meat – taking away the driver for intensive production – but it’s also important to be careful about how meat is produced. This means making sure that the meat we do consume has been farmed in a way that won’t compromise our future health or challenge our ability to treat infection. Eating better must surely be the way forward.

Do join the conversation on our hub about how sustainable diets can help drive a more sustainable food and farming system. You can also sign up to newsletters from the new Eating Better alliance.

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