Expert: Antimicrobial resistance is the ‘new climate change’

The EU’s flagship food policy, the Farm to Fork strategy (F2F), aims to reduce overall EU sales of antimicrobials for farmed animals and in aquaculture by 50% by 2030. [SHUTTERSTOCK]

Diseases evolving to become resistant to antibiotics is a hidden threat to humanity as dangerous as climate change, an animal health expert has told EURACTIV, warning that more must be done to reduce the use of antimicrobials in agriculture.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has listed antimicrobial resistance (AMR) as among the 10 biggest global threats. Yet despite the danger, the issue is hardly on the public radar, according to Edgar Garcia Manzanilla of Ireland’s agriculture and food development authority, Teagasc.

“Much like climate change [it] is something that is happening, but because you don’t see it immediately happening, it’s very difficult to make people react against it,” said Garcia Manzanilla, coordinating expert of a recent report on the reduction of the use of antibiotics in poultry farming.

Hatcheries ‘cleaner than hospitals’

The EU’s flagship food policy, the Farm to Fork strategy (F2F), aims to reduce overall EU sales of antimicrobials for farmed animals and in aquaculture by 50% by 2030. But meeting this target is becoming a challenge for sectors that have already picked off the low-hanging fruit.

According to Garcia Manzanilla, the poultry sector has already decreased use of antibiotics by up to 90%, making the sector a reference point for others. This even includes hospitals, he added, claiming that a hatchery is “cleaner than a human hospital without any doubt.”

However, progress in this area is becoming more challenging.

“We’ve seen huge reductions already – the problem is, the more progress you make in this area, the harder it becomes to reduce further,” he said.

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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.

Lack of data

Another issue is that the EU does not have a full and accurate idea of the scale of the use of antimicrobials on farms at the species level. Data on their use is collected only in the form of sales figures, which Garcia Manzanilla says is not specific enough.

“If, for example, they say we need a reduction of 50% in the pig or poultry sector, it is very difficult to measure because you don’t actually have the data,” he said.

All EU countries will be required to measure the use of antibiotics at the species level by 2027, but Garcia Manzanilla said that would be too late to meet the current target.

As well as a disparity at the species level, the use of antimicrobials varies widely between northern and southern Europe, with warmer, southern countries having to rely on them more to combat higher levels of bacteria.

As such, Garcia Manzanilla said solutions must be adapted to local climatic conditions.

“You also have to consider that when you are fighting bacteria, [they] are completely dependent on temperature. So in Finland, when you have six months below zero, it is much easier than in Italy or in Spain, when most of the year is above 20 [degrees Celsius],” he said.

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No time to wait

One way that the farming sector could further reduce its use of antimicrobials is with the use of on-farm testing tools, Garcia Manzanilla said, stressing that at the first sign of infection, farmers can often not afford to wait before administering such medicines.

“You are talking about a group of animals with an infection, and this infection can kill them from one day to another, so if you have a reasonable suspicion of the problem, you have to take action to save the animal there and then – there’s no time to wait to send off samples to labs,” he said.

Providing farmers with on-the-spot testing tools would allow them to ascertain whether or not the animals need antimicrobials. Yet despite the targets, access to testing has not been made a priority in many countries.

“The more we reduce, the more we will need these [testing] tools, because every amount of antibiotic that you’re removing is a risk that you’re taking,” he said, highlighting the trade-off between animal well-being and reduction of antimicrobial use.

[Edited by Josie Le Blond]

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