Stephen Cadogan: Irish farms must be proactive against antibiotics over-use

Farmers need to prepare for less and less reliance on antibiotics in livestock production.

In the EU, programmes to reduce use of antibiotics have been in place for over a decade.

As a result, sales of veterinary antibiotics recorded in 24 European countries shrank by 2.4% between 2011 and 2014, according to the European Medicines Agency.

But sales differ substantially from member state to member state, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to eventually see standard programmes to restrict veterinary antibiotics across the EU .

Already, the Danish government is urging the EU to take action over what it considers to be excessive use of antibiotics in southern European livestock production.

And figures from a recent Rabobank report show that intensive farmers in the Netherlands may be losing out to the Spanish.

Spain has the highest sales of veterinary antibiotic in the EU, about six times more than in the Netherlands.

In Spain, antibiotics are widely used in a preventive way, in feed premixes which help animals to gain weight faster.

These premixes probably played a major role in the Spanish pork industry improving its feed conversion ratio from 2011 to 2014, compared to the Dutch pork industry.

Less than 5% of the antibiotics used in the Netherlands are in premixes, with more than 95% used for entirely curative purposes.

As a result, pressure is mounting on Spanish pig farmers to reduce use of antibiotics.

Countries like Denmark and the Netherlands are unlikely to tolerate losing out because they lead the way in reducing veterinary antibiotics.

A standardised clampdown across the EU might be the result, made more likely by two major 2016 political developments — United Nations members reaching agreement on a global fight against antimicrobial resistance to life-saving medicines, and a commitment from G7 members to lead this fight.

If no action is taken, it is feared that antimicrobial resistance could kill up to 10 million people globally every year by 2050, with a huge cost for the world economy, according to a recent review commissioned by the UK government.

For example, colistin is a last-resort antibiotic in human medicine, but bacteria resistant to it have spread across the globe.

They have been found in hospitals in over 30 countries, including 28 Chinese hospitals.

High rates of colistin-resistant bacteria have even been found in flies on Chinese poultry farms which can spread resistance. Over-use of antibiotics is largely becoming an emerging markets problem, and can have no place in a modern, developed agri-food industry like Ireland’s.

Ireland recognises the potential threat posed by antimicrobial resistance to human and animal health, food security and the environment, and has in place an established cross-government commitment to tackle it, long before the leaders of 193 countries in the United Nations came together last year to address the waning effectiveness of antibiotics and other antimicrobials, as one of the most pressing public health crises.

Ireland’s cross-government commitment requires collaboration across the human, veterinary and environmental sectors, and a co-ordinated response from the public health, animal health and environmental sectors.

In any case, striving towards antibiotic-free farming must be the way forward for Ireland to even further improve the green, healthy image of its food industry.

Brexit will force us to diversify into the European consumer markets, where better food quality ensures success among populations worried about nutrition, pesticides and antibiotics. 

Already, Teagasc says developing and evaluating technology to reduce antibiotic use on dairy farms is one of its key actions planned in the medium term.


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