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Is there a need for ‘kinder farming’?

by
01 April 2017, at 12:00am

Veterinary Practice looks at the campaign launched by the Soil Association for reductions in the use of antimicrobials and tries to separate fact from fiction

THE LATEST CAMPAIGN BY THE SOIL ASSOCIATION has generated a strong response. 

The chairman of RUMA (Responsible Use of Medicines in Agriculture), Gwyn Jones, issued a statement that he had been taken aback, not just by the incorrect statements and lack of knowledge of industry progress in the campaign messages, but that the antibiotic resistance issue could be used as a vehicle to promote philosophical, commercial or fundraising objectives. 

His ire has been raised by the campaign: now is the time for “kinder farming” – our health depends on it.

The overarching aim of the Soil Association is stated as: all farm animals to feel the sun on their backs, for cattle to graze grass, for pigs to make nests of straw to give birth and for chickens to bathe in the dust outside and peck at insects and worms on grass fields. 

Medicines ‘no longer work’ 

The campaign states that people are dying all over the world because medicines no longer work. Antimicrobial resistance is a threat that requires urgent development and action by governments and society as a whole. It threatens the achievements of modern medicine. Common infections and minor injuries that have been treatable for decades may once again kill millions. 

The appeal to supporters is: “We have played a crucial part in getting this far. The level of agreement is now so great that industrial livestock farmers and the drug companies have been unable to ignore it. They agree that the antibiotic use in farming must be cut and the British poultry industry has already taken some positive steps in line with our campaign demands. 

“But the job is only half done – and you are needed more than ever. Intensive livestock farmers and the drug industry are still in denial about how to solve the problem. They claim that how we keep, treat and feed farm animals has nothing to do with how often they get sick and how many antibiotics they need. This is wrong.” 

Trying to unpick the points made needs some careful consideration. Maybe it hinges on what is meant by getting sick. In human terms, getting sick possibly often relates to an infection. There is genuine concern that prescribing antibiotics for virus infections in humans can contribute to transferable bacterial resistance. 

It is probably true that the livestock industry is unsure of the benefits of simply reducing antibiotic use without understanding the consequences for animal welfare. Maybe the campaigners believe that modern farming has to rely on antibiotics to overcome deficiencies in animal management. 

It is likely that many veterinary practices have farmer clients who have inadequate facilities and management approaches, but the general understanding would appear to be that healthy animals are more productive and that money is well spent on preventing disease. 

It is interesting that the campaign also indicates that controlling disease by better facilities, hygiene, etc., makes “intensive indoor systems more sterile – without making improvements to animal welfare”. So, freedom from sickness is not enough. 

Inadequate action 

It is considered inadequate to only prevent disease and reduce antibiotic use because this doesn’t match the overarching aim. Gwyn Jones added: “While some campaign groups have fixed views on how farming should operate, they need to recognise that livestock farming in the UK is broad and diverse, delivering healthy, affordable food while meeting high welfare standards. 

“Attacking farming systems under the guise of campaigning to reduce antibiotics could lead to unintended consequences, such as the replacement of high quality and safe British food with cheaper imports.” 

Under the banner of We Need to Change the System, the Soil Association’s campaign continues: “As organic farmers we know that our chickens, sheep, pigs and cows lead healthy lives, rarely get sick and hardly need treating with antibiotics. For example, under organic standards a piglet stays with its mother for at least 40 days. 

“We never give routine antibiotics to piglets when they are weaned. But if piglets are removed from their mum when they are as young as 21 days old, this causes stress and they frequently get diarrhoea. This happens on most industrial pig farms and routine treatment with antibiotics is usually unavoidable.” 

Maybe pig vets would like to comment on the sales of antibiotics for weaners. With the ongoing data collection on prescribing, this is the sort of information that could be made widely available so that usage comments can be accurately supported. 

The desired outcome for the campaign is clearly indicated. “By funding more campaigning, together we can change the lives of millions of farm animals for the better. Your ongoing support prevents many animals from living a miserable, cramped existence in a factory farm. 

“A donation will mean that together we can prevent a human health disaster Gwyn Jones. and continue to improve the lives of millions of farm animals. We need your help so we can ramp up our work with all farmers, not just organic ones, to make this vision a reality.” 

There is a programme of development to achieve “higher animal welfare”. A donation of £10 could bring farmers to a round-table discussion on practical steps to cut antibiotic use; £20 could help fund a briefing to MPs and SMPs on how good animal husbandry can massively reduce antibiotic use; £30 could fund work to ensure the Department of Health demands reductions in antibiotic use in farming that match cuts in human medicine. 

Little veterinary reference 

In all the many words making up the campaign, there does not appear to be much reference to veterinary surgeon involvement in antibiotic use, despite the need for a veterinary prescription and examination of livestock. 

Within veterinary meetings, the topic of antimicrobial resistance occurs repeatedly, together with discussions about the means of transferring good intentions into actions at farm level. 

It does appear that the Soil Association and the veterinary profession have a matched awareness about the benefits from reduced antibiotic use.

It is to be hoped that the Kinder Farming campaign is successful in attracting donations and that veterinary practices are funded, from this fund, to have round-table discussions with farmer clients. 

Local Members of Parliament and representatives from the Department of Health could be invited, with the objective of increasing understanding of the real issues and ways forward.