In this series we continue to ask some of the leading experts in the field of antimicrobial resistance (AMR) and One Health for their take on progress, leadership and challenges.
Our latest interviewee is Lindsay Duncan, the Farming Campaigns Manager for World Animal Protection UK. Lindsay leads lead on the No Future for Factory Farming campaign working to end the worst suffering of animals in farming across the UK and globally.
Hello Lindsay. We are delighted to be able to interview you. Thank you. How is antibiotic resistance relevant to your organisation’s line of work?
Antibiotics are routinely overused on factory farms to compensate for poor conditions and husbandry. Unfortunately for many animals, confinement in barren pens and barns or even in cages like farrowing crates is common in the UK. This crammed and stressful environment is the perfect breeding ground for diseases, and routine mutilations like tail docking increase the risk of infection. Because of this, low levels of antibiotics are given to whole herds of healthy animals to prevent the inevitable illness occurring. This regular overuse increases the risk of common bacteria becoming resistant to antibiotics. We don’t just want to see an end to antibiotic overuse, but for welfare to be raised across the UK. The health and wellbeing of animals is linked to our own, so we need to do better for people, animals and our planet.
Questions on antibiotic resistance and One Health
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?
Unfortunately not. Bacteria do not recognise borders and the response needs to be a global effort. It was great to see the EU bring in legislation banning the routine and preventative group use of antibiotics on farms. We need to see these measures duplicated, and enforced, across the world. Trade deals can be key in influencing other markets to follow in introducing legislation and new practices on farms, but to date action on this has been slow.
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 is imperative to tackling antibiotic resistance. The health of people, animals and the planet are all linked. Ignoring one aspect will allow antibiotic resistance to continue to grow and spread. Our recent research found superbugs (bacteria resistant to multiple antibiotics) in pork sold on supermarket shelves and in waterways and the environment around farms in the UK. We need to raise farm animal welfare and ensure local environments are not impacted by farms.
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?
Bacteria do not stay on farms, they spread through workers and in the manure which is used on fields or dumped into waterways. Bacterial also spread through the animals themselves when moving from breeding to finishing farms and on to slaughter-houses. Bacteria are also spread through raw meat. It is true that it is hard to pinpoint where bacteria causing a human infection will have originated from, but dismissing antibiotic use on farms would be unwise. It is the same bacteria causing infections in both animals and humans after all. One area monitored by the government is bacterial food poisoning, which can cause serious health problems for young, elderly and immune compromised people and has a clear link back to the food causing it. Resistance to life saving antibiotics can and does have devastating effects and we should be working to reduce resistance everywhere we can.
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?
Factory farms tend to use far higher amounts of antibiotics as conditions allow for greater opportunities for contracting and spreading illness. Stress decreases the immune function in animals, just like in humans, and large numbers of genetically uniform animals kept in crammed close confinements means bacteria and viruses can spread quickly. To reduce antibiotic use in farming we need to both reduce the amount of animal products we consume by around 50% globally and drastically improve conditions and welfare on farms. This includes using breeds that have not been selectively bred for fast growth or higher yields, giving animals access to outdoor space, and ending mutilations and the use of cages.
How important do you think the environmental spread of antibiotic resistance is? Should farming industries take action to counter it?
Our research testing waterways and slurry around farms in the UK showed alarming results with superbugs and Antibiotic Resistant Genes (ARGs) found around all farms. The farming industry must take action but this will not be as simple as putting silos on every farm. For instance, over 1 billion chickens are raised for meat every year in the UK and their manure has to go somewhere. We must stop the growth of factory farming and help farms transition to more sustainable systems.
Questions on regulation, voluntary action, and trade
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?
The regulations are clear that antibiotics can not be overused to prop up poor conditions and husbandry on farms. We are asking the UK government to bring in similar legislation. While voluntary reductions have had some success we know that most of the remaining antibiotics used on farms are still given to whole groups of animals. This is irresponsible overuse. We want to get to a point where individual animals are treated as and when needed.
Do you anticipate that these rules will deliver responsible farm antibiotic use or is further action likely to be required?
While many countries in the EU have taken large steps towards implementing these regulations it has not been consistent. Monitoring, clear plans for implementation and enforcement are still needed.
The UK Government has chosen not to implement the new EU rules on farm antibiotic use, and is instead still promoting a voluntary approach. What is your reaction to this?
The recent proposal by the Veterinary Medicines Directorate does address some of our asks for regulations on antibiotic use on farms in the UK, however prophylactic use will not see the same strength of regulation. The UK was once a world leader in the fight against AMR and it is a missed opportunity to once again show leadership. We also need to be clear in future trade deals that we will not import lower welfare animal products with higher antibiotic use tariff free. This not only protects UK farmers progression to higher welfare and responsible antibiotic use by not undermining them with cheaper imports, but also helps open dialogues with other markets where antibiotic use is far higher. Bacteria do not stop at borders and this needs to be a global effort to stop a pandemic that could eclipse that of Covid 19.
Questions, looking ahead
The world has been shaken by the impact of covid, what can we do to prevent AMR becoming the next global pandemic? What advice would you give to world leaders about their response to AMR?
Covid 19 has shown just how devastating a global pandemic can be, lives cut short, business and trade impacted and an almost impossible task of stopping the spread. We need to learn from this. Unlike Covid 19 we will not be able to vaccinate our way out of an AMR pandemic as we will be losing critical medications for human and animal health. We need to act now and we need to work together. Purely focusing on antibiotic use in humans will mean AMR spread from factory farms will slip under the radar and continue to fuel this threat.
What is the single most important thing to achieve if we are to win the fight against rising AMR?
Responsible use in all countries across all sectors and a unified one health approach is needed to win the fight.
If you had $1bn to fight AMR, how would you spend it?
I would use $1bn to remove as many cages as possible from farms - whether farrowing crates or so called enriched cages - they have no place on farms. Animals should be free to move, socialise and carry out normal daily behaviours. This is fundamental to provide high welfare conditions for animals to live in.
Thank you for your time Lindsay and for sharing your views. Good luck with your continued work to protect farmed animals.
For more information and to follow the work of Lindsay and her colleagues:
Interview with Experts: "Towards food-animal systems which are not dependent on antibiotics" - an opinion piece by Amit Khurana and Rajeshwari Sinha, Centre for Science and Environment, India31st July 2023