By Casey L. Bradley, Ph.D. – ASAS Public Policy Committee Member
Recently, Science published a Policy Forum piece entitled “Reducing antimicrobial use in food animals,” (29 September 2017). In their opening statement, the authors describe a large and expanding use of antimicrobials in livestock that is of considerable concern regarding antimicrobial resistance (AMR). The article goes into further detail to claim overuse of antibiotics, over-production and consumption of meat-sourced protein, and ultimately non-judicious use of antimicrobials by the livestock sector.
The authors summarized three main points or avenues to reduce the antimicrobials in food animals, which could result in a 9% to 80% reduction in antimicrobial use by 2030. First, they discuss regulations that would put a cap of 50 mg of antimicrobials per PCU per year, suggesting a 64% reduction in antimicrobial use from today’s available data. Second, they discuss limiting meat consumption worldwide to 40 g/day, suggesting a reduction in antimicrobial use of 66% use. Third, they discuss a user fee or tax on current veterinary antimicrobials, suggesting a 31% reduction in antimicrobial use.
Unfortunately, the authors did not discuss the fact that very limited evidence exists to support a claim that growing incidence of AMR in humans is due to livestock producers using antibiotics, even though they are a potential contributor to the problem. During the discussion of global trends, antimicrobial use varied greatly between countries or regions. They cite policy initiatives to aid in reducing antimicrobial use in the EU, but there is unharnessed use in China because of lack of policy. However, they did not dig deeper into their research to better understand the disease challenges in different regions when compared to antimicrobial usage. Furthermore, the authors have not considered how sufficient plant-based food would be produced to feed people adequately if animal units are reduced. Similarly, by-products from sustainable fuel initiatives and the food industry would become waste products rather than affordable and sustainable feedstuffs, as they are in today's livestock sector. Also, as obesity increases, high-protein diets utilizing lean meats have become great alternatives for individuals managing this health concern.
Furthermore, the authors do not have the same perspective of antimicrobial use in livestock as I do. When animals are faced with a disease challenge, losses can be great and ultimately animals can suffer without the use of antimicrobials, and then it becomes a welfare issue for the animals. I have seen how devastating disease challenges and high mortality can impact the livestock sector, and ultimately it has made me a stronger advocate for improved detection, biosecurity, vaccine development and implementation, and strategic or judicious use of preventative antimicrobials in livestock and humans. As a result, I am a scientist who has spent her career searching for alternatives to antimicrobials in livestock production, because quoting Albert Einstein “We can’t solve problems with the same kind of thinking that we used when we created them.”
When a problem exists, the first instinct of some is to enact more laws and/or government regulations and policies to prevent the problem. However, the solution to solving AMR is not taking away our current tools to deal with disease in humans and livestock. Rather, we can potentially use policy to support and bring about innovative solutions such as a new antimicrobial or an entirely new approach to disease prevention and treatment. We allow the misinformed and cherry-picked data to drive policy rather than supporting and embracing the innovation that science-based solutions can create. If taxation is going to be a considered avenue for lowering the use of antimicrobials, then I highly suggest the money be used for innovative alternatives rather than the “black hole” or “general fund” of taxation today, which was not discussed in this policy piece.
Ultimately, if the Science article's suggestions for reform are put into practice, third-world countries will continue to struggle and people will continue to starve. Also, with limited disease treatment options will we also open the door to the next “super bug” or “black plague” that doesn’t see the black and white lines policy makers create. In closing, it is time that all parties come to the table to discuss problems and opportunities and create a stronger solution rather than “cherry picking” data that benefits their perspectives.