Antibiotics in Farming

There was big news last week from the European Parliament as MEPs voted to take action to curb the use of antibiotics in farming – something that I have always believed in.

Here Daylesford’s Environmental Scientist Tim Field explains why it is imperative to stop treating healthy animals with antibiotics and how we practice this approach at Daylesford.

How are we faring on the fight against antibiotic resistance?

Antibiotic resistance is a natural phenomenon; however its rate of emergence and spread is accelerated by certain human actions. One such action is the inappropriate use of antibiotics in animal husbandry. Current food systems have contributed to a potential global health catastrophe.

Here is why. Western diets demand more meat but expect to pay less and less for the privilege. This has driven reluctant farmers into husbandry systems that squeeze livestock to yield more, from reduced space, in a faster time. Feed nutrition is rationed to optimise weight gain (or milk and egg yield) within an ‘efficient’ lifespan. Activity is constrained to save space and handling ease. Exposure to natural behaviours and diets are stripped out and replaced by a very artificial, controlled environment.

Arguably, such a controlled environment allows the micro-management of disease and health; managers and vets are on hand to oversee the entire flock or herd which are often confined indoors to negate the influence of external environmental factors. However, it seems obvious to me that such conditions put undue stress on the animal. Not just the kind of mental stress we get from a looming deadline (or an animal’s fear of being gobbled up by a wolf)… but physiological stress on the body caused by the intensive housing, nutrition and genetics that are designed to drive weight gain but inadvertently hinders a natural ability to remain healthy. Systems like this are enabled because of a considerable amount of antibiotics used on healthy animals, taken routinely to prevent infection – otherwise known as prophylactic use. Metaphylactic use (i.e. treating a group of animals when one shows signs of infection) is another artificial route to enabling fundamentally unhealthy environments for livestock.

Antibiotics in Farming

The concern for our health comes when reports reveal 70% of antibiotics in the USA that are medically important for humans are used in animals. And this scale and systemic antibiotic abuse in livestock husbandry is only encouraging resistance, and this resistance can be passed down the food chain to humans. So what urgent, coordinated action is going on?

Well it doesn’t come more surprising than the press release from the European Parliament on 10th March:

‘in a vote on draft plans to update an EU law on veterinary medicines, MEPs advocate banning collective and preventive antibiotic treatment of animals’. This is a huge statement. It goes on ‘The fight against antibiotic resistance must start on farms. We wish to prohibit the purely preventive use of antibiotics, restrict collective treatment to very specific cases, prohibit the veterinary use of antibiotics that are critically important for human medicine…’

We are over the moon that such a step has been made but it is the start of a long process with potential hurdles along the way. Many are asking how farming and the food industry will survive. Well thankfully there is nothing new in managing livestock without the routine use of antibiotics. We managed without any at all before Alexander Fleming made the ground breaking discovery in 1928. And we’ve never known more about livestock nutrition, welfare and health status – using the very best of technology to keep our animals fit. At Daylesford we pride ourselves on the organic techniques, attention to detail and high welfare that maintain healthy livestock without the over use of antibiotics. And on the rare occasions we have to treat an unwell animal (it is a priority to maintain welfare) we withdraw it from the food chain for twice the time of most conventional livestock.

Antibiotics in Farming

In response to an increasing number of conventional farmers wanting to become more sustainable, as well as organic farmers wanting to hone their techniques, we set up Agricology. Farmers and growers access Agricology for the best information on practical, sustainable farming. Next month the Agricology theme focuses on animal health, so we will be giving the tools to help farming systems make systemic changes and wean off antibiotic dependence – whilst remaining profitable.

But we can do our bit to stay fit and healthy too, and protect our antibiotics. Eat less but the right kind of meat is something we’ve always believed. It makes it more affordable, is better for our health and is vastly more sustainable.