Can large-scale meat production survive without antibiotics use in livestock to accelerate growth and prevent disease? The Dutch are giving it a try.
An must-read article in Modern Farmer magazine tells the story:
“Growth promoters,” the microdoses of everyday antibiotics given to livestock to fatten them, have been banned in Europe since 2006 — but the Netherlands decided to go even further. Since 2009, Dutch farmers have cut animal drug use by half without harming either animal welfare or their own profits. Four years into the project, their accomplishment has huge implications for farming throughout the world.
The Deadly Problem with Antibiotics Use in Livestock
Here’s why this matters.
For decades, farmers have given antibiotics to cattle, pigs, and chickens not only to fatten them more quickly (thus turning a faster profit) but also to prevent infections likely to be spread through animals tightly packed in filthy conditions. In the U.S., farmers and ranchers pump almost 30 million pounds of antibiotics into the meat we eat every year.
What does antibiotics use in livestock do to us? We’re still finding out.
Antibiotics can remain in the meat that makes it to our tables. Even more problematic, however, is this: As a result of administering low dose antibiotics, natural selection has led to the growth of deadly antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria like methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA). The CDC estimates at least 23,000 deaths in the U.S. happen as a direct result of infection from these “nightmare bacteria,” with many more deaths resulting from conditions that were complicated by these types of infections.
(You can learn all you ever wanted to know and more in their 114-page report ANTIBIOTIC RESISTANCE THREATS in the United States, 2013.)
What the Dutch Did About It
About 10 years ago, MRSA developed in pigs in the Netherlands. It spread throughout the country — to animals and people — quickly followed by other virulent bacteria.
In 2009, the Dutch minister of agriculture, Gerda Verburg, decided it was time to act. Her ruling? Farmers could no longer perform preventive dosing of antibiotics. Veterinarians controlled the antibiotic supply, and no antibiotics could be administered until after a vet inspection. Farmers also had to cut their antibiotic use dramatically — by 20 percent in one year and 50 percent in three.
Dutch farmers actually bought in (which is amazing since the Netherlands is Europe’s biggest meat exporter). And in 2013, the ministry announced that between 2007 and 2012, the Netherlands saw a 56% decrease in antibiotic sales to farms without any significant negative impact on efficiency or financial results. Modern Farmer describes the impact on animal and human health:
So has all this attention to detail actually helped animal and human antibiotic resistance? Early data says yes. The 2013 edition of the Netherlands’ annual report on antibiotic usage in animals shows resistant bacteria declining in pigs, veal, chickens and dairy cattle. What will really prove its worth, though, is whether antibiotic-resistant infections decline in humans too.
Evidence shows that there has been no further increase in the number of human infections. But we’ll have to wait to see if the number goes down.
So the Dutch took a risk that paid off — prioritizing animal and human health by redesigning agricultural norms. Will other countries follow their example? Why shouldn’t they?
Oh — and by the way — the Netherlands could also win the World Cup. Karma? I still have to say “Go USA!”
Note: I originally wrote — quite incorrectly — that the Netherlands was the only European country left in the World Cup at the time of this post. Duh. I hang my head with shame. Go USA! -mgg
Image Credit: Livestock via Shutterstock