WHO to Farmers: Antibiotics Overuse Has to Stop

The World Health Organization has issued a new report in which it lays out the reasons why farmers must stop using antibiotics as part of their routine rearing practices.

Antibiotics resistance is a growing global problem that threatens to undermine modern medicine as we know it and potentially make what we now class as trivial or easy to manage diseases into serious and even life-threatening problems.

Part of our attempts to manage and combat antibiotics resistance comes from reducing how many antibiotics we use, so for example ensuring that we aren’t giving people antibiotics when they won’t be effective (i.e. when a person has a virus, or when other remedies can be used in their place).

Another area that has come under intense scrutiny during our quest to reduce antiobitics overuse is the mass farming sector. The farming industry uses antibiotics not just to treat sick animals, but actually as growth promoters and to actually prevent herds from getting sick. Indeed, critics argue that without antibiotics, the mass farming sector can’t operate because animals are too tightly packed to remain healthy.

Now the World Health Organization has issued policy guidance that calls on the farming sector to reduce its use of antibiotics.

“Scientific evidence demonstrates that overuse of antibiotics in animals can contribute to the emergence of antibiotic resistance,” Dr. Kazuaki Miyagishima, Director of the Department of Food Safety and Zoonoses at WHO, is quoted as saying. “The volume of antibiotics used in animals is continuing to increase worldwide, driven by a growing demand for foods of animal origin, often produced through intensive animal husbandry.”

The World Health Organization’s new guidance supports rules that have been in place in areas like the EU for a number of years now, requiring that national governments and food companies ditch antibiotics that are used to promote growth in livestock.

The guidelines also say that farmers should not pro-actively use antibiotics to safeguard herds and should wait until there is a pressing health issue. It also notes that when antibiotics are needed, farmers and their veterinary support should look to medicines that aren’t used, or aren’t frequently used, by humans. The World Health Organization has a list of antibiotics that are considered vital for human healthcare, and these are all ones the industry must avoid if we wish to keep the integrity of this vital source of medicines alive.

The World Health Organization suggests that these efforts can be helped by government support for things like improving hygiene on farms, reexamining rules on vaccinations (which can sometimes preclude animals being viable for consumption), and changes to general husbandry practices.

WHO stops short of suggesting that the entire farming sector will need to change its approach to animal rearing, but when taking the guidelines as a whole the inference is clear: how we have approached farming as a big industry isn’t sustainable if we want to preserve our antibiotics supply and things will have to change.

Analysts have said that, even though these recommendations don’t actually represent new information as such, the fact it is coming from a body like the World Health Organization is significant.

“These [guidelines] are a great starting place, and taking these actions would make a huge difference,” microbiologist Lance Price, director of the Antibiotic Resistance Action Center at The George Washington University, tells Scientific American. “Some countries take these kind of things—WHO recommendations—more seriously than others, but I do think it is important to have these guidelines codified by a very respected international group dedicated to protecting human health.”

However, these recommendations carry no legal weight, so technically world governments can ignore them. In general, adherence to World Health Organization recommendations is high, and as noted above these recommendations reiterate what is already a legal standard in many parts of the world. That said, some in the farming sector have resisted calls to roll-back antibiotics use. The U.S. farming industry in particular has been leery of scaling back due to perceived fears of losing a competitive edge, though in recent years that attitude has softened some.

This resistance isn’t reflective of thinking of all in the farming industry though. Several farming groups have pledged to gradual scaling back as they bring in other methods to manage herd health. While time is a factor in this fight, gradual reductions appear to be an achievable way of making a meaningful difference.

With scientists racing to either reinvigorate our failing crop of existing antibiotics, or find new sources of antibiotics, antibiotics resistance continues to be a pressing issue, but the World Health Organization’s report and call to action makes one thing clear: the farming industry can play a significant part in reducing resistance, so it’s up to world governments to find ways to facilitate action from the farming sector–and sooner rather than later.

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash.

52 comments

Angela K
Angela K4 days ago

When people stop eating meat = that will end !!!

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Mike R
Mike R6 days ago

The meat industry is sickening. The suffering the billions of animals endure on a daily basis.

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Henry M
Henry M6 days ago

Many if our familiar human diseases are evoluted versions of farm animal illnesses. If we ditched animal agriculture for good, we could prevent more outbreaks of new diseases.

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Irene S
Irene S6 days ago

I´m not talking about factory farming. But the growing antibiotic resistance is a problem for farmers too, when they try to keep their livestock healthy. Cattle easily gets hurt and for a few decades antibiotics prevented life-threatening inflammations. Then vets and doctors started to use it always and everywhere. There we are.

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Steven L Jones
Steven L Jones8 days ago

The genius of capitalism. As long as it makes us a profit who cares. In the long run pigs cattle and chickens will die as well. And I know big agri cares about that.

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Janet B
Janet B8 days ago

Thanks

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Leo Custer
Leo C9 days ago

Thank you for sharing!

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Winn A
Winn A9 days ago

Thanks

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Winn A
Winn A9 days ago

:-(

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Misss D
Misss D9 days ago

I have not eaten beef for many years now, ever since the BSE scandal in Britain. Since then, we have had the horse meat scandal, whereby meat that was labelled as beef, was actually horsemeat. If you were lucky. Sometimes the labs couldn’t identify it at all! So, beef is not something to be trusted in Britain and the situation is probably the same in other countries. But it’s not just red meat or beef that is the problem. Sub-therapeutic use of anti-biotics (e.g. used as growth promoters or to prevent rather than treat, disease), also applies to pigs, chickens, turkeys and other species. Most of the time, if it is not organic, then it is factory farmed. The exception might be sheep, which are often put outside on low quality pasture (which is fine for them, not a welfare issue). For an interesting study of the effects of factory farming, including sub-therapeutic use of anti-b’s, you can read ‘Animal Factory’ by David Kirby. It has lots of case studies and is an interesting read.

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