Campaigner and organic farmer, Richard Young, has died on his farm in the Cotswolds, aged 73. Richard was a leading champion of animal welfare and was central to the establishment of the Alliance to Save Our Antibiotics.
Richard was prominent in the organic movement just as it began to go mainstream and had an important role in the development of the Soil Association’s organic livestock standards. His prescience before the BSE crisis ensured that organic feed did not contain animal waste. With his sister Rosamund, he farmed a herd of suckler cows at Kite’s Nest Farm near Broadway, where the animals graze on wildflower-rich meadows, and are kept in family groups and treated as individuals.
In 1994, when Richard was Policy Director at the Soil Association, he launched Europe’s, and perhaps the world’s, first major campaign against the overuse and misuse of antibiotics in intensive farming. Antibiotic resistance was becoming an increasing problem in human medicine, and he realised that allowing antibiotics to be used routinely in farming was a significant contributing factor.
Richard was an exceptional researcher, with a keen eye for detail and an encyclopaedic memory, and he was keen to set problems in their long-term context, invariably a highly instructive exercise. Writing 'the history section' of a campaign report was always one of his favourite tasks.
The Soil Association’s first major antibiotics report put this interest to good use. It showed that regulators’ focus on ending the use of antibiotic growth promoters without taking any action against routine prophylactic use, an approach that the UK and the EU had favoured ever since the government's own Swann Report had advocated it in 1969, was bound to fail. The report found that the use of penicillins and tetracyclines in UK farming had increased by 600% and 1,500% respectively since they were banned for growth promotion in the early 1970s.
Further reports followed, focusing variously on the transfer of antibiotic-resistant bacteria from livestock to humans through the food chain, on residues of specific toxic antibiotics found in certain foods and on the need to improve animal husbandry and health and welfare to minimise the need for medication. Many of these reports broke new ground and received national, sometimes international, coverage.
However, while regulators and industry representatives clearly took note of the Soil Association’s campaign, and would sometimes admit to only having learnt of various issues from it, progress towards more responsible farm antibiotic use remained slow. To build a wider coalition for ending routine farm antibiotic use, Richard helped the Soil Association, Compassion in World Farming and Sustain establish the Alliance to Save Our Antibiotics in 2009. He continued to head the campaign and in 2014, participated in the founding meeting of the Antibiotic Resistance Coalition, an international group of civil-society organisations advocating for effective action on antibiotic resistance in both human and veterinary medicine.
In January 2022, the EU finally banned prophylactic group treatments with antibiotics, as well as all other forms of routine farm antibiotic use. The bloc had accepted that its narrow action on antibiotic growth promoters had failed, just as Richard had warned it would 25 years earlier.
UK farmers also significantly reduced their antibiotic use, after industry groups that had previously attacked the Soil Association and the Alliance’s antibiotic campaigning ultimately realised that antibiotic resistance was a major problem for human health and that farming needed to take action.
Richard eventually moved to the Sustainable Food Trust, where he continued to campaign on issues such as the hidden environmental and health costs of UK production methods or the vital importance of small, local abattoirs for animal welfare and the sustainability of organic production.
A few days before his death he learnt that his long campaign to secure government support for small abattoirs had finally borne fruit.
Everyone who had the good fortune to work with and learn from Richard will hugely miss his kindness, his great sense of humour, and his enthusiasm for working to create a more environmentally sustainable, and human and animal-friendly food and farming system.