The microbes are coming: it’s time to act!

Don’t you think it is amazing that joint replacement operations are possible? Or that pneumonia and tuberculosis are not a death-warrant diagnosis? Anyone who has ever had a bad gastro-intestinal infection would agree: the discovery of antibiotics is one of the most extraordinary achievements in medical science.

Antibiotics or, to be more scientifically precise, antimicrobials, are used to treat infectious diseases caused by bacteria ,for most surgical interventions, as well as in the treatment of cancer and HIV. Antibiotics are powerful drugs, but become ineffective when used in incorrect doses or for insufficient duration or too often, accelerating the resistance of bacteria. So, basically the more antibiotics we use, the higher the risk they are going to stop working.

What does this have to do with food? Using antibiotics in livestock production can eliminate the spread of bacteria in crowded industrial animal farms. Antibiotics in small doses are routinely used to enhance growth of farm animals.  We still don’t really know how exactly this works, but we are doing it.

So, little by little, through milk, cheese and meat as well as through waste from livestock farms, antibiotics get into our food chain, hastening the growth of resistant bacteria. That’s why cramming our food with pharma can send our healthcare back to the Dark Ages.

Bacteria don’t respect borders. Trade and globalized value chains bring Antimicrobial Resistance (AMR) to global attention, putting it on the discussion table at the United Nations. "It is crucial to work with AMR on the international level because it is a global threat. There are, however, ways to deal with this threat. Working together, we can share experience and learn from each other,” Elizabeth Backteman, State Secretary to the Minister for Rural Affairs of Sweden told those at one of the side events at the 43rd session of the Committee on World Food Security.

Sweden pioneered AMR policy by banning routine use of antibiotics for prophylactics and growth promotion back in 1986. The initiative to introduce this ban came from farmers who noticed resistance and got concerned. Currently Sweden uses very little antibiotics in its livestock systems and has the lowest levels of antimicrobial resistance in the EU, while its livestock sector productivity can compete with that of the US.

The secret to such success is high standards of animal welfare, strict prescription of antibiotics and a One Health perspective in policy, which implies working cross-sector and collaboratively on the intersection of human, animal and environmental health.

“Just like humans, animals need to have different places to eat, to sleep and to go to the toilet. Sectioning stables and leaving them empty from time to time (and) taking animals out is one measure for stopping the spread of bacteria. We use antibiotics only when large groups of animals get sick,” Christina Furustam from the Federation of Swedish Farmers, LRF) said.

Christina also pointed out that, despite the success of the ban, it took 30 years to get consumers to accept a small price premium for the meat produced in Sweden without antibiotics. So, there is still a lot to be done to raise consumer awareness.  However, we need to understand that paying a bit more for food is ultimately cheaper than paying hospital bills when the prescribed treatment is not really working.

Another strategy is regulation and enforcement of more careful use of antibiotics in livestock production and in general. There are many countries where antibiotics are available over the counter without prescription. However, use in the livestock sector outweighs human consumption of antibiotics by far, and because very few countries have effective monitoring and control systems, we can only assume how much antibiotics are used in our livestock systems. “Prevention is better and cheaper than cure.  Countries need to review the practice and regulation of current antimicrobial use,” advises Dr. Ulf Magnusson, from the Department of Clinical Sciences, SLU.

The World Health Organization (WHO), the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) developed a Global Action Plan on antimicrobial resistance and are ready to support countries in development of their own national action plans.

In September, 2016 the UN General Assembly reaffirmed its strong political commitment by adopting the declaration on antimicrobial resistance. “A very important feature of the declaration is that countries agreed to report on the progress back to the General Assembly every two years. So it is not just a paper that you can file away. You have to work with it,” explains Cecilia Nordin van Gansberghe, Ambassador, Senior Advisor at the Ministry of Enterprise and Innovation of Sweden.

Speaking to Elizabeth Backteman, who has been working with the political push on AMR within the UN, I asked if she felt positive about the future global action on antimicrobial resistance. “We have a long way to go, but I am positive because acknowledging the issue on the global level is already a big step and provides us with a good platform for working together.”

So, AMR is a big deal and it is inspiring to see that governments care about this issue. But what can I personally do to contribute and protect myself and others from the spread of resistant bacteria? Talking about the issue is one thing that each of us can do. By spreading the word we can keep the pressure on industry and the public sector.

As consumers we can also ask food retailers if they know whether the food on their shelves was produced with antibiotics.  We can refuse to buy if they do not know. Getting ready to pay a bit more for the foods produced to safer standards is also a strong consumer move. That is how we can support producers who care about their animals and about what they put on the market and they deserve to be acknowledged for that.

Blogpost by Ekaterina Bessonova, #CFS43 Social Reporter - ekaterina.bessonova(at) 

Photo credit:  Anne Marie Peterson on Flickr

This post is part of the live coverage during the 43rd session of the Committee on World Food Security (CFS). This post is written by one of our social reporters and represents the author’s views only.

20/10/2016 22:23


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