Interview with the Experts- Dr Laura Boyle, Teagasc

Dr Laura Boyle, 29th February, 2024

Job title, organisation and brief description of your role:

I am a senior research officer with the pig development department in Teagasc which is the Irish national agriculture and food development authority responsible for research, education and advisory. While I do some teaching and advisory/knowledge transfer work within Teagasc, my primary role is as an animal welfare scientist with pigs and dairy cows as my main species of expertise. In recent years, my interests have extended beyond traditional notions of animal welfare to considering its role in the sustainability of animal production systems and consequently the broader ecological and social considerations of agriculture. One Welfare recognises the interconnectedness of humans, animals and their environment and therefore the multidimensional nature of agricultural systems. I use this holistic framework to navigate the complex relationships between the environmental, biological, political and economic dynamics of sustainability.

How is antibiotic resistance relevant to your organisation’s line of work?

AMR threatens the sustainability of animal production systems which could have detrimental implications for food security, rural livelihoods and the economics of food and farming systems. From an animal health and welfare point of view, it places animals at risk of ineffective treatment of disease/illness.

Antibiotic resistance is increasingly referred to as the next global pandemic. A recent study published in The Lancet has estimated that 4.95 million people died of an antibiotic-resistant infection in 2019, and for 1.27 million of these people their deaths were attributable to the antibiotic resistance of the infection. Do you think current global actions will be sufficient to tackle a problem of this scale?

No, I don’t believe current global actions are sufficient. Certainly, in agriculture, costs of production are forever increasing while prices at the farm gate are generally volatile/reducing such that farmers are running to stand still. Under such conditions, farmers have no choice but to externalise costs of production onto society (e.g. microbiologically unsafe food, dangerous slaughterhouse working conditions), animals (e.g. overcrowding) and the environment (e.g. pollution). This means that the improvements (to housing, management etc.) necessary to raise animal welfare and thereby to improve animal health and reduce AMU are simply too costly for them to implement. I think this issue probably applies to many other aspects of modern life thereby precluding real progress towards tackling AMR.

One Health is an approach that recognises that the health of people is closely connected to the health of animals and our shared environment. To what extent do you think that there is a need for a One Health approach to tackling the spread of antibiotic resistance?

One Health (concept is a crucial component in tackling the spread of AMR because it emphasises that our health is interconnected with that of animals and the environment we share with them. I think the One Health - One Welfare concepts combined is even stronger though! Unfortunately I also feel that no matter how strongly we emphasise that our health is dependent on the welfare (and health) of the animals we farm and eat and no matter how strongly societal concerns are for the environment, human nature is such that behavioural change does not come easy.  Hence these concepts alone will not save us in the absence of significant policy/economic changes that move the focus away from cheap food and insist on food production systems that internalise costs of production.

Most of the scientific literature suggests that farm antibiotic use can contribute to higher levels of antibiotic resistance in human medicine. However, this issue remains controversial with some claiming there is no link. Do you believe that tackling the overuse of antibiotics in farming can contribute to controlling the spread of ABR in human infections?

Antibiotics allow us to farm animals in unhealthy, unhygienic, barren and cramped conditions. There is lots of evidence that raising standards of animal production improves animal welfare and thereby animal health. So it would seem logical that this should logically reduce AMU. However, the scientific literature is still lacking evidence of a direct reduction in AMU arising from better housing husbandry/improved welfare and to my knowledge, there are even fewer (if any?) papers showing associated reductions in AMR. Nevertheless, there are many other compelling reasons why we need to reduce antibiotic use in farm animals not least because it allows farming of animals in conditions that are unacceptable to the public which thereby threatens farmers social licence to farm

Do you think the global growth in intensive livestock farming is contributing to higher levels of farm antibiotic use? Would you recommend any systemic changes to the way we raise livestock in order to preserve the efficacy of antibiotics? Do you think there is a need to put greater emphasis on improving animal health and welfare to reduce reliance on medical treatments?

The rise in intensive agriculture (and associated compromises in housing and increased genetic selection etc.) is contributing to poorer animal welfare and therefore poorer animal health. I think systemic changes have to come at a higher level than simply adopting more welfare friendly farming systems as these are not economically viable in a world where consumers demand and become accustomed to cheap food (that we do in fact pay a very high price for indirectly - few people seem to recognise this…unfortunately!). While lifting countries out of poverty increases the portion of society that is prepared to pay more for food of better quality this has so far not delivered greatly in terms of improved welfare for the masses of farm animals.

How important do you think the environmental spread of antibiotic resistance is? Should farming industries take action to counter it?

I really don’t know much about this issue except to say that I expect it is even further down the list of priorities than the link between animal and human spread! Given our lack of concern for pollution that we can see – plastic etc. – it will be hard to promote concern for pollution of the environment with antibiotics as they are invisible! But yes of course in an ideal world farming industries should take action to address it (again it means internalising the costs of production!).

New EU legislation that came into force in the 28th of January 2022 bans routine farm antibiotic use and restricts prophylactic use to exceptional cases and for individual animals only. It also prohibits using antibiotics to compensate for inadequate husbandry and poor hygiene. The legislation limits metaphylaxis to cases when the risk of disease spread is high. Do you think these new rules are a step forward for responsible antibiotic use in farming?

Yes of course in theory they should help but as ever implementation of legislation/enforcement is the challenge. We have lots of excellent animal welfare legislation in the EU for example, even in the absence of any further legislation animal welfare would be greatly improved if it was applied.

Do you anticipate that these rules will deliver responsible farm antibiotic use or is further action likely to be required?

Legislation is only part of the solution – the important step in the middle is implementation/enforcement and associated behavioural change, system change etc (see previous comments)

Voluntary measures in the UK have seen farm antibiotic use fall by 59% per livestock unit since 2014. What can the UK AMR community / farmers / farm vets/ supermarkets and food retailers / contract caterers do to maintain progress?

This is great news and I am sure some of the reduction arose from improvements in husbandry and housing of animals etc. However, we know that our major reductions in the pig industry in Ireland came from targeting a small proportion of exceptionally high users of antibiotics. Generally, production standards have not risen and owing to industry structure etc. (as discussed above) is not able to improve significantly


The UK is seeking and signing new trade deals with countries across the globe, what are the AMR risks and the opportunities of these new trade deals?

Probably more risks than opportunities, as is the case with globalisation in general

What is the single most important thing to achieve if we are to win the fight against rising AMR?

 Stop commodifying food and health

If you had $1bn to fight AMR, how would you spend it?

 Teach children the value of food, how to cook healthy, high quality meals and how to exercise!