Animal breeding has been neglected in the conversation on tackling the looming global crisis of antimicrobial resistance, according to Green MEP Sarah Wiener, who stressed a need to focus on breeding animals for resilience over productivity.
The overuse and misuse of antibiotics in both animals and humans is contributing to the rising threat of antimicrobial resistance (AMR), identified by the World Health Organisation (WHO) as among the top 10 biggest global threats.
Already, this is estimated to lead to around 33,000 human deaths in the EU every year as well as 700,000 deaths per year globally, and is thought to cost the EU €1.5 billion each year.
To tackle this looming crisis, the EU’s flagship food policy, the Farm to Fork strategy (F2F), sets out an aim to reduce overall EU sales of antimicrobials for farmed animals and in aquaculture by 50% by 2030.
However, meeting this target is becoming a challenge for sectors that have by now picked off the low-hanging fruit, including parts of the meat sector, which has already made significant progress in the reduction of the use of antibiotics in recent years.
One neglected aspect of animal welfare that could help the sector achieve this is animal breeding, according to Green MEP Sarah Wiener, who, speaking at a recent event, highlighted that the “urgent need” to address this.
Stressing the need to rethink the way in which animals are bred in order to place an emphasis on health and well being, she said that livestock “should and can be kept healthy through good husbandry and welfare rather than through bought in immunity”.
“We cannot focus on performance alone, for example, meat or egg production, but need to consider the health and resilience of animals,” Wiener said.
“Breeding is crucial because animals are bred only for performance without regard to the physiological limits of their bodies,” she said, emphasising that antibiotics cannot be allowed to “compensate poor hygiene or husbandry practices”.
While the F2F strategy places an emphasis on the role of animal welfare in reducing the need for antibiotics in the sector, it does not explicitly mention the role of animal husbandry in tackling AMR.
According to a recent study, the economic value of selective breeding based on disease resistance and tolerance in infectious conditions can be more than three times higher than breeding based on production traits in disease-free conditions.
The study pointed out that while disease tolerance has been proposed as an alternative livestock breeding goal trait, to date no breeding company carries out explicit selection for increased tolerance of animals to any type of infection.
Speaking at the event, Eran Raizman, senior animal health and production officer at the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, concurred, saying he was a “big believer” in good husbandry practices.
“If you promote good husbandry practices that aim at improving animal health, eventually, you don’t need to use as much antibiotics,” he said, highlighting that prevention is key.
However, he cautioned that there will always be diseases that cannot be avoided by good husbandry practices, meaning that antibiotics must remain a key part of farmers’ toolkits.
Roxane Feller, secretary-general of Animal Health Europe, also pointed out that breeding animals that are less prone to diseases can play an important role in reducing the need for antibiotics.
However, while she acknowledged Wiener’s concerns over animal breeding, she highlighted that the sector already focuses on breeding for reasons beyond productivity, adding that antibiotics are never used to compensate for poor animal husbandry or hygiene in the EU.
“In the management of how we will be using antibiotics in the future, it’s never written anywhere to combat poor hygiene or husbandry practices,” she pointed out.
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]