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Farmers say they’re not to blame for the abuse of medically important drugs in animal agriculture. The problem, as they see it, is much more complicated.
Words by Hannah McKay
A farmer reaches for a glass bottle and fills a syringe with a dose of veterinary penicillin. Administering antibiotics to farmed animals, whether by giving an injection or adding the drugs to feed, is something many farmers do on a regular basis. In doing so, farmers are knowingly or unknowingly contributing to antibiotic resistance, also known as antimicrobial resistance, one of the biggest and most urgent threats to global health.
Individual farmers are not to blame for animal agriculture’s overuse and misuse of medically important drugs. Rather, this problem is largely driven by the mass production of meat, dairy, and eggs. Understanding farmers’ points of view and enabling them to change their practices is key to tackling antibiotic resistance.
Although widely misused in factory farms to compensate for unhealthy conditions and promote growth in farmed animals, antibiotics are a vital resource in veterinary medicine. And, in an industry that sees animals reduced to units of production, the inability to treat illnesses has the potential to significantly affect profits.
Recent research suggests that the risk of infection on farms has become a growing threat for farmers’ financial stability. In 2018, academic researchers spoke to 41 beef and sheep farmers from 34 farms across England and Wales. Farm sizes ranged from flocks of fewer than 400 sheep to mixed groups of more than 800 sheep and 300 cattle. The results of the study, published in the journal Frontiers in Veterinary Science, suggest that farmers are concerned that antibiotic resistance could have devastating impacts on their animals, businesses, and incomes. One respondent, for example, said: “If you have a pneumonia outbreak that you can’t treat then–what are you going to do? You could lose 30 animals in the blink of an eye.”
In the eyes of these farmers, the emergence of drug-resistant bacteria is not just a distant threat. It’s happening now. Several study participants suspected that antibiotic resistance might already be affecting their farms. “The antibiotics haven’t got the fight power against the disease [that] they used to have,” said one farmer.
As simple infections become increasingly difficult to treat, farmers will face higher vet bills and many farmed animals will lose their lives.
In a similar qualitative study based on interviews with dairy farmers in New York State and published in the journal Plos One, participants were also concerned about antibiotics losing their efficacy. However, some felt as though they had more pressing issues to think about, such as the everyday running of the farm. The 20 dairy farms in this study, five of which were organic, varied in size, ranging from 40 to 2,300 lactating mother cows.
It is worth noting that the views gathered in these two studies may not necessarily represent the views of the entire animal agriculture industry. They do, however, offer us a valuable glimpse into farmers’ perceptions of their business’ own antibiotic use and their contribution to the emergence of drug-resistant bacteria.
Although the dairy farmers knew that misusing antibiotics with their cows could lead to antibiotic resistance on their farms, not all of them were convinced of the fact that this poses a serious threat to human health. One study participant thought that antibiotic resistance was “overhyped.” Another farmer said that they would only be concerned about their antibiotic use affecting people if the specific drugs they used were “critical for treating some humans somewhere.” This perhaps points to a lack of awareness of the fact that when bacteria become resistant to one antibiotic, they can also become resistant to other antibiotics in the same class.
Another dairy farmer who was seemingly unconcerned about the industry’s misuse of antibiotics harming human health claimed that “[there are] no antibiotics in any milk.” This statement is not entirely true —samples of cow’s milk sold in the U.S. have, in fact, been found to contain traces of antibiotics above federal limits— but it may suggest that some farmers are not fully aware of the other ways in which antibiotic-resistant bacteria can spread from farmed animals to humans. For example, the pathogens can be transmitted to farmworkers who have direct contact with affected animals or contaminated animal waste from farms can leach into soil and waterways.
Farmers’ skepticism of this problem is likely not helped by the propaganda they have thrown at them by the pharmaceutical giants that make large amounts of money out of manufacturing and selling antibiotics for use in farmed animals. These companies ignore, downplay, and deny scientific consensus in order to encourage the feeding of antibiotics to healthy farmed animals, despite the World Health Organization (WHO) and other public health agencies having warned against this practice.
Farmers in both studies felt that they used antibiotics sparingly and responsibly, but researchers noted that this belief did not always match up with the antibiotic use practices that the dairy farmers described.
Sheep and beef farmers expressed that they had the knowledge and experience to know when and how to administer antibiotics with little input from their veterinarians. Based on this view, some were worried about the prospect of further restrictions on antimicrobial drug use, such as only veterinarians being allowed to administer antibiotics. One farmer said that “having your vet out to treat or administer antibiotics for every six sheep,” would not be profitable and could create welfare issues.
A dairy farmer told researchers that giving antibiotics to cows was just like giving medicine to kids when they are unwell. “We don’t give them antibiotics for no reason. If they are sick they need to be treated,” they said. This line of argument overlooks the fact that the crowded, stressful, unsanitary environments in which farmed animals are often kept are what make them so susceptible to disease in the first place.
Many farmers seemed interested in minimizing their antibiotic use, not just to protect against antibiotic resistance but also to increase profits. However, as researchers pointed out, minimal use is not necessarily the same as responsible use. In contrast to the common practice of feeding antibiotics to healthy animals, a few study participants seemed reluctant to use antibiotics even when it was in the best interest of the animals. “We only use antibiotics for the ones with maggots in ‘em and the hoof falling off,” said one sheep farmer.
When describing what steps they were taking to reduce the need for antibiotics, some farmers seemed to focus on improving biosecurity and managing animal health by using vaccines and killing animals who carry diseases.
According to these studies, antibiotic resistance was considered an important enough issue for many farmers to change or at least consider changing their practices. This, however, does not necessarily mean that the animals would receive a higher standard of care.
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