Updated: Jul 1
For some time now I have been working on our family-run dairy and beef enterprise. During this time, I have been surrounded by talk of the important problems facing the farming community; high input costs, fluctuating prices for meat and dairy produce, difficulty in meeting emissions requirements and the availability and cost of acquiring new land for expansion. These problems each require and deserve serious discussion and resolution, but none of these issues is as daunting to me as the startling and growing problem of antimicrobial resistance in both humans and animals.
There is a significant and sometimes underappreciated link between the health of the planet’s livestock and the health of its human population. Widely recognized is a worldwide dependence on antibiotics to safeguard our health over the course of our lives, less familiar to the public is the emergence of a terrifying pattern regarding antibiotic use in agriculture and the side effects of that. Given our reliance on antibiotics for our own health, the production of our food and in many cases, our income, it’s only natural to assume that somebody, somewhere, is casting a watchful eye upon the global use of these bacteria destroyers, enforcing strict regulations to ensure their effectiveness and availability in the years to come. Perhaps a little, but not at all to the extent that is necessary. Anti-microbial resistance has been touted as a strong likelihood as far back as 1946, when Sir Alexander Fleming warned that public demand for drugs, including one he discovered, penicillin, would lead to overuse and eventual bacterial evolution. Microbes receive a high level of exposure to antibiotics and in 2016, many have now evolved resistance to our front-line antibiotic defence. This is an issue that must be tackled in our law making, our food production and in our personal healthcare before further damage is done. It is difficult to assess where the responsibility lies in the fight against anti-microbial resistance, it is not my place to tell you or even to suggest a course of action, but I shall do my best to describe here some of the incredibly worrying hurdles we now face.
Veterinarians are now encountering a growing number of animals displaying resistance to conventional drugs. Many reasons for this resistance have been put forward, including improper completion of the antibiotic course, the use of wrong antibiotics and repeated use of the same antibiotics. Recent studies support a growing fear of the link between animal antibiotic use and human resistance to these antibiotics. Colistin is a drug used by humans as a last resort drug in cases of cystic fibrosis and a range of intestinal infections. Found recently in China, was evidence that agricultural use of Colistin had provoked some resistance to the drug in nearby communities. We are already having difficulty treating gonorrhea because of resistance to antibiotics. It is estimated that without the appropriate measures being taken, drug resistant strains of tuberculosis, malaria and HIV could, at a future date, take ten million lives per year. The projected financial impact of this is that one hundred trillion would be wiped from the GDP over 35 years. Antimicrobial consumption in Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa looks set to double before 2030. This is an issue that is growing with each passing year. While the US has imposed some solid regulation on antimicrobial use in food production, nothing of the sort seems to be happening in South America and Asia and pharmaceutical companies will have no issues in providing these growing economies with antibiotics for agricultural use.
Antimicrobial resistance can and will lead to animals passing drug resistant strains from animal to farmer. It will be the cause of drug resistant strains reaching the consumer through beef, dairy and poultry products. Animals will inflict drug-resistance on their local environment through excretion. Our knowledge gaps in this area are dangerous. The necessary data concerning levels of antibiotic use, the types of antibiotics used and area-centric drug resistance data is not available to the people capable of steering us away from this potentially catastrophic problem. As a species, our treatment of disease has historically been reactionary; we identify the problem, develop a cure and treat people accordingly. In the battle against anti-microbial resistance our defence must become one of a proactive nature; we must adopt greater development and use of vaccines, work toward improvements in infection control and animal husbandry, and promote development in the area of disease intelligence. I hope we never reach a point when the worth of our antibiotics has been nullified by years of negligent use.
No part of me wants to believe the difficulties we could face in treating bacterial infections on our farms in the years to come. Some might read these estimates of risk to human health and deem them a problem for people elsewhere in the world, another time, another continent, another statistic. The issues I have outlined will take money from the farmers’ pocket in Europe, food from Japanese shelves and health-care options from our children the world over if we do not tackle this swiftly and appropriately. As an industry and a society, we need to step up our efforts in the conservation of our agricultural future.