Antimicrobial Resistance and Factory Farms
Factory farming (also known as intensive/industrial animal agriculture) is the cornerstone of a dangerous industrial food system that profits from the suffering of billions of cruelly farmed animals each year and contributes immensely to Antimicrobial Resistance (AMR). Animal welfare and sustainable development are inextricably linked.
What is an Antimicrobial?
Antimicrobials are drugs that destroy disease-causing microbes, also called pathogens, such as certain bacteria, viruses, parasites, and fungi. The most familiar and important antimicrobials are antibiotics, which treat bacterial infections while others are antivirals, anthelmintics, antiprotozoals and antifungals.
What is Antimicrobial Resistance?
Antimicrobial resistance (AMR) occurs when pathogens undergo adaptive evolutionary changes that enable them to withstand antimicrobials. People or animals who encounter resistant pathogens may then suffer infections that can’t be treated. The pathogens survive, humans and animals get sicker and may die, the cost of treatment rises, and disease continues to spread. Bacteria that are resistant to 2 or more drugs are often called “Superbugs.”
Antibiotic overuse in farming and emergence of superbugs
Despite the United Nations, G20 and many world leaders recognising superbugs as a global health emergency and calling for comprehensive actions across medicine, the community and agriculture, excessive use of antibiotics in animal farming continues. Globally, three quarters of all antibiotics are used in farming.
This overuse of antibiotics in farming facilitates the development of superbugs. Superbugs can then be spread via food, animals, animal feed, manure and the environment and pose major risks for people and animals.
Low-welfare farming with antibiotic overuse
Factory farms squash large numbers of genetically uniform animals into stressful, barren environments which have no access to outdoors or natural light. Animals are often caged, with no room to turn around or lie down and fully extend their limbs, heads, or wings. These highly stressful conditions can lead to injuries and abnormal behaviours including biting cages, chewing repetitively until frothing the mouth, pecking feathers or even cannibalism.
It’s no accident that pig farming uses very high levels of antibiotics: pigs are one of the most intensively farmed species on the planet. In some studies, up to 90% of antibiotics were administered in the first 10 weeks of pigs’ lives and associated with painful mutilations (especially surgical castration) and related gut and respiratory infections.
As animals do not metabolise around 70% of the antibiotics that are administered to them, these antibiotics pass through the animals and into the environment via manure as residues, they speed the evolution of antibiotic resistant bacteria in soil and water.
This is not just a problem for land-based farming. Up to 75% of antibiotics used in aquaculture may also be lost into the surrounding environment.
Human health risks
Superbugs can spread to humans via animals, the environment or food, posing a great threat to food safety and public health. Antibiotic resistant infections cause greater rates of sickness and death, are costlier to treat, result in longer hospital stays and place a greater burden on health systems and lives. Antibiotics previously effective in treatment of various common or foodborne infections may no longer be a solution and treatment options may be costly, inaccessible or come with serious side effects. The risk of bloodstream infections is also higher. Those World Health Organisation are most at risk of superbug illness include;
- Infants especially premature babies
- Seniors, especially in care homes
- People with weak immune systems due to illness or injury
- Vulnerable communities living in crowded, unhygienic conditions
- Farmers, slaughter and meat processing workers or those who work with sick animals
The World Health Organisation’s recommendation to end the use of antibiotics to promote fast growth and prevent disease in farm animals can be achieved by moving to higher animal welfare systems. The animal farming industry must stop routinely giving antibiotics to groups of animals with no infection, or no signs or diagnosis of disease. To enable this change, they must adopt higher welfare practices such as the Farm Animal Responsible Minimum Standards (FARMS) as the bare minimum.
Animal welfare and sustainable development
The United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA5.2) recently passed the Animal Welfare – Environment – Sustainable Development Nexus resolution, which acknowledges that animal welfare can contribute to addressing environmental challenges, promoting the “One Health” approach, and achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. All Member States further acknowledged that there is an increasing need to address the connections between the health and welfare of animals, sustainable development, and the environment.
Global food retail sector: Develop an overarching animal welfare policy aligned with the 5 Domains Model and phase in procurement requirements in line with the FARMS animal welfare requirements as a minimum.
Global animal protein production sector: Commit to using antibiotics responsibly in farming; ending the routine use of antibiotics including to promote fast growth and to prevent disease across groups.
Governments and intergovernmental organisations: Introduce and enforce regulations ending the routine use of antibiotics including to promote fast growth and to prevent disease across groups.
Financial investors in food systems; Require companies to meet FARMS animal welfare requirements as a minimum. Phase in requirements for companies towards systems that align with the 5 Domains Model.
Together, we will change the way the world works to end animal cruelty and suffering. Forever.
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