As new data is published showing that over 3 million surgeries and cancer treatments may become life threatening without antibiotics. Cóilín Nunan of the Alliance to Save Our Antibiotics explains why the ‘less and better’ approach to meat and dairy consumption is essential:
Antibiotics have undoubtedly saved millions of lives, enabling us to treat previously incurable illnesses like pneumonia, scarlet fever and tuberculosis, and allowing surgery and cancer chemotherapy to be carried out much more safely. But in recent years our wonder drugs have been losing their power because of the rise of antibiotic resistance.
Deaths from infectious disease are increasing again, and according to a government-commissioned review, if we fail to act, by 2050 global deaths from infections will exceed current deaths from cancer, and the cumulative cost of resistance to the global economy will be £76 trillion.
There are two reasons we are facing what is being called a possible ‘antibiotic apocalypse.’
Firstly, we are failing to discover enough new antibiotics: for about half of all infections, we have discovered no genuinely new antibiotics for nearly 40 years.
Secondly, we are overusing antibiotics, in both human and veterinary medicine. Misuse is particularly widespread in livestock farming. It is estimated that globally 73% of all antibiotics are used in farm animals.
Why have we ended up using so many antibiotics in farming and does it impact human health?
In the 1950s, governments decided to allow farmers to add antibiotics routinely to animal feed because they were found to have a growth-promoting effect. Scientists warned about resistance, but the argument that meat would be more plentiful and cheaper won out.
Adding antibiotics to feed or drinking water also helped control disease, enabling many more animals, particularly pigs and poultry, to be kept indoors in unhealthy, unhygienic conditions. Although antibiotics have been a boon to human health, for many livestock they have resulted in a more stressful life facilitated by the drugs helping them fight respiratory and intestinal disease.
Most resistance in human infections is due to the medical use of antibiotics, but we know that farm use is making the problem worse, including for antibiotics classified as critically important or last-resort in human medicine.
What happens is that at slaughter some of the resistant bacteria in the animals’ guts contaminate carcases, ending up on meat. When we handle raw meat, or eat undercooked meat, the bacteria can pass to us and cause or contribute to resistant infections. Also, when manure or slurry is spread on land, resistant bacteria and antibiotic residues can end up on crops and in drinking water.
In recent years, the British poultry and pig industries, under pressure from government and fearful of regulation, have voluntarily made some major and welcome cuts to their antibiotic use (80% for poultry and 50% for pigs). However, there is now record use of other routine medication, and some of these alternative drugs can still cause antibiotic resistance and are thought to be environmentally damaging. Major improvements to husbandry and animal health are needed, instead of more drugs.
Antibiotic growth promotion is no longer permitted in Europe, and the EU is about to agree a vitally important ban on using antibiotics for routine disease prevention. It will, however, only come into force in 2022, and worryingly, the UK government is refusing to commit to implementing it.
To make even larger cuts in antibiotic use, we must improve how we farm animals. Pasture-fed animals, animals raised with access to the outdoors and organically farmed animals generally have fewer disease problems and much less need for antibiotics. We know this could make a huge difference as intensively farmed animals can receive up to 20 times more antibiotics than animals raised outdoors.
Routine antibiotic use has enabled the huge growth in intensive livestock farming and in meat consumption, particularly of pig and poultry meat, that has occurred in the past half a century. But this comes at a great cost to animal health and welfare and is now undermining the foundations of modern medicine. A healthier and more sustainable food system will require us to accept eating less meat and dairy, and to choose better-quality meat where animals are raised more naturally and without routine antibiotic use.