A world without effective antibiotics is a terrifying but real prospect. When antibiotics are used and overused, the bacteria they are meant to kill can adapt and develop resistance, making these life-saving medicines ineffective. Common medical procedures such as hip surgery, cesareans or cancer chemotherapy, which today we take for granted, would be far less safe without effective antibiotics.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) says that antibiotics are already failing and that “without urgent action we are heading for a post-antibiotic era in which common infections and minor injuries can once again kill”.
Worldwide it is estimated that 73% of all antibiotics are used in farm animals, not people. Much of this use is routine, and enables farm animals, most often pigs and poultry but sometimes also cattle, to be kept in poor conditions where disease spreads easily. Leading authorities such as the European Medicines Agency and the WHO say that the overuse of antibiotics in farming contributes to higher levels of antibiotic resistance in some human infections.
In the UK, British livestock farmers have made good progress in reducing their antibiotic use, and farm antibiotic use now accounts for about 30% of all British antibiotic use. British pig and poultry farmers have reduced or, in some cases, ended routine use. This progress is welcome, however, much more needs to be done, as antibiotic use remains too high.
There is still a need to improve animal husbandry and welfare, so that infections are less routine and antibiotic treatment becomes exceptional. For example, in the Netherlands, supermarkets now insist that healthier slower-growing breeds of chicken are used. Dutch industry data shows that these breeds are at least three times less likely to require antibiotic treatment for infection than intensive fast-growing chickens. The UK should follow suit.
The government also needs to take action and ban the use of antibiotics in animal feed or drinking water for purely preventative purposes.
“I want animals that have been reared with good welfare standards and, actually, that means very low antibiotic use.”
Professor Dame Sally Davies, former UK Chief Medical Officer
The Alliance to Save Our Antibiotics
In 2009, Compassion in World Farming, the Soil Association, and Sustain founded the Alliance to Save Our Antibiotics, an alliance of health, medical, environmental and animal-welfare groups working to stop the overuse of antibiotics in animal farming. Its vision is a world in which human and animal health and well-being are protected by food and farming systems that do not rely routinely on antibiotics and related drugs.
The Alliance campaigns for a ban on all routine farm antibiotic use, including an end to preventative mass medication. It also campaigns for improvements to husbandry standards, so that farm animals are kept in conditions where good health and welfare are the norm.
Together, we aim to halt the routine use of antibiotics in farm animals.
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