Targets for anti-microbials must allow for ‘massive’ variation within livestock sector

But any concrete reduction targets must encompass the "massive" reductions already made by parts of the livestock sector, and these differences must be reflected in the starting baseline, a leading livestock sustainability consultant told EURACTIV. [SHUTTERSTOCK]

This article is part of our special report Exploring sustainability in the EU livestock sector.

Ambitions to lower the use of antibiotics in farming must take into account the “massive” amount of variation between member states and also between species, according to a leading livestock sustainability consultant who also highlighted the pressing need to digitalise the animal health sector.

On the backdrop of an increased focus on animal welfare in the EU, EURACTIV spoke with Jude Capper, a livestock sustainability consultant, to hear about her on the ground perspective on animal health.  

The rise of antimicrobial resistance (AMR) is a looming global crisis, threatening our ability to treat common infectious diseases, resulting in prolonged illness, disability, and death.

As such, in its flagship food policy, the Farm to Fork strategy, the European Commission outlined a 50% reduction in the sale of antimicrobials for farmed animals and in aquaculture by 2030.

AMR: Foodborne superbugs harder to beat, EU agencies say

Foodborne bacteria such as Salmonella, Campylobacter and E. Coli are getting harder to treat as they are becoming increasingly resistant to antibiotics used to beat them, two EU agencies warned in a report published on Tuesday (3 March).

But any concrete reduction targets must encompass the “massive” reductions already made by parts of the livestock sector, and these differences must be reflected in the starting baseline, Capper told EURACTIV.

Drawing on her experience working in the UK, Capper emphasised that a lot of work had already been done both at the governmental level and the processor and vet level, both in terms of “rationalising, reducing and replacing anti-microbials”.

The European Court of Auditors published a report on AMR earlier this year which found that there has been a 20% decrease of antibiotic use in animals in Europe over an initial five-year reporting period. That number has now increased to 32% for a majority of member states, according to the European Medicines Agency.

“Some industries have already made huge progress, like pork, poultry, and dairy, while others, like beef, have made much less,” she highlighted, which she put down to the fact that beef is a less integrated industry, with less feedback and traceability between the individual steps in the sector.

Capper therefore stressed that it would be both unfair and unreflective of the different gains made to set blanket baselines now.

“It would be unfair for pigs and poultry, for example, to have baselines set now when they’ve done so much over the past ten 10 years- so we need an appropriate baseline which reflects these differences,” she said.

“In five years time, the beef industry will probably look like it’s done better than the others on a percentage reduction basis, but that’s because so much ground has been covered by other industries,” she warned.

Commission: Third countries should meet EU antibiotics requirements on animal exports

Non-EU countries that export animals and animal products to the bloc will have to abide by new rules on veterinary medicines when it comes to the use of antibiotics, according to the European Commission.

Strengthening peer-to-peer communication

One thing she highlighted was the need to strengthen peer-to-peer communication – something that she says has helped to reduce the prescription and use of antibiotics.

“We’ve seen massive improvements through the sharing of best practices via farmer discussion groups, and this is something that can be achieved both on a regional basis and across countries,” she said, adding that she sees a lot of potential in similar exchanges between farmers in different EU countries, such as between Italy, Switzerland and France.

She also highlighted that more work must be done to give farmers the tools to measure their progress and incentivise improvement.

“If we can’t measure it, we simply don’t know if we’ve got better or worse,” she stressed, adding that appropriate sustainability metrics are needed on farms, but that this has been the subject of intense debate. 

“We can’t necessarily use a one-size-fits-all approach which might not capture all nuances across farms and situations. Instead, we might be talking about a suite of metrics that can be used to fit some farms better than others,” she said.

One thing that she was clear about, though, was the need to digitalise the sector to step up to the challenges it faces.

COVID-19 crisis could 'kick off digital revolution in agriculture'

Digital farming is set to boom in the aftermath of the COVID-19 crisis, given its capacity to help the EU farming sector improve its sustainability and recover from the outbreak’s impact. But there are also considerable concerns raised about the pace of this change and whether farmers are adequately prepared for it.

“We have to accept that, as an industry, we have to be more transparent, more open, and we have to be able to quantify the progress we are making, what our antimicrobial use is, what our carbon footprint is. We will absolutely have to become more data-aware, more computerised,” she stressed.

This will help the sector to connect the dots between animal health and sustainability metrics, including the use of antibiotics, but also in terms of greenhouse gas emissions and water use,  she said. 

At the moment, there are considerable gaps in the data, which means that we can’t quantify and compare the effect between diseases, and we can’t link them to economic or environmental cost,” she said, adding that generally speaking these will interact together in a “really positive way”.

Without quantifiable evidence of benefit, “business-minded farmers won’t be inclined to change,” Capper stressed.

She said that in addition to more data from farms, industry-wide data is also needed to identify the areas with potential for huge gains, compared to diseases that will continue needing treatment.

[Edited by Zoran Radosvljevic]

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