By Alasdair Macnab

Jim Walker’s most recent column reiterated a point I have made in previous columns – we need to take ownership of our industry and in all aspects of it.

It is a challenge, but we have no choice but to take head on. If we don’t, we won’t be making the decisions.

I wrote last month of the data iceberg we are sailing towards. Antibiotic resistance is the next one. However, this is a good story for a change.

Those living in the western world today are probably the most fortunate people in history. No major wars for almost 75 years, excellent disease control, high living standards and a plentiful supply of food.

Behind this is the development of antibiotics, anthelmintics, fungicides, vaccines, plant and animal breeding and good supply chain management. This is under threat and one of those is antibiotic resistance.

What has this to do with farmers? Plenty! Overuse, misuse, wrong use and carelessness with antibiotics allowed bacteria to develop resistance to them rendering them ineffective.

Sir Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin in 1928 and within a few years he predicted the development of resistance and its consequences. Over the following decades a host of new antibiotics were discovered and used.

Many were used initially in humans but use soon became widespread in animals and by the 1960s mass medication of livestock was commonplace.

By 2000, the world was aware of resistance problems and the World Health Organisation published a global strategy to contain the problem in 2001. Antibiotic resistance cannot be eradicated, but it can be contained and controlled.

This needs three things to happen. First is the need to reduce antibiotic use. You see notices in your vets and doctors advising you about this.

Secondly, is identifying and ensuring the most effective antibiotic to use in each situation, which is where vet advice is essential. Thirdly, is the development of new treatments, management systems and approaches to dealing with antibiotic resistance.

More recently, antibiotic resistance was found in the environment, not just humans and animals. This finding prompted the development of a concept called ‘One Health’. This recognizes that the health of humans, animals and ecosystems are inter-connected.

It is rapidly becoming an international movement based on collaboration between vets, doctors and environmentalists who are addressing the problems of resistance to treatments.

All these issues combine to an inevitable outcome – we have to learn to use antibiotics correctly and responsibly. For farmers, this means reducing use, using the right antibiotic for the right length of treatment, storing them correctly and recording their use accurately.

This advice can only come from your vet and that should be your only source of antibiotic.

How much antibiotic is being used in farming?

In 2014, 448 tonnes of antibiotic was used in UK agriculture. By 2018, that had fallen to 226 tonnes – a fall of 49%. A major success for UK agriculture.

Sharing this amount of antibiotic between every kg of every food producing animal in UK agriculture, the average amount in 2014 was 62.5mg/kg. By 2018 this had fallen to 29.5mg/kg. Well done UK agriculture.

Add to that screening of healthy animals in abattoirs showed very low levels of antibiotic resistant bacteria in cattle and sheep and higher levels for some of the commoner antibiotics in pigs and poultry. This needs to be looked at in the light of the intensive nature of these production systems and also in the light of how they changed their systems in response to the withdrawal of a range of antibiotics in 2006.

Human antibiotic use in 2015, when compared to food animal use on a weight for weight basis, is 2.4 times higher than farm animals.

The most recent report from the Veterinary Medicines Directorate showed there was a 9% reduction in sales of antibiotics for food producing animals between 2017 and 2018.

The UK has one of the lowest levels of antibiotic sales in Europe, eclipsed only by Finland, Norway, Iceland and Sweden, on figures adjusted to the size of the national animal population.

This is another part of the great story our brand has to tell. UK farm animal use of antibiotics is 60% below the EU average. I find this an amazing statistic.

This industry achievement is hailed by the BVA as an impressive part of the fight against antimicrobial resistance. UK chief vet, Christine Middlemiss, has said: “The trend was testament to the improvements the industry and the veterinary profession have made in antibiotic stewardship, training and disease control.”

Will this fall continue? There is a view that we are fast approaching the point where the level of antibiotic use could be deemed responsible. It will be a few years before this is confirmed.

The salmon industry, despite claims to the contrary, has taken a robust approach to minimising antibiotic use over the last 40 years. In the 1980s, antibiotics were in widespread use and in huge amounts.

Today following changes in husbandry, development of vaccines and genetics the whole industry used 1 tonne of antibiotic in 2018. Yes one tonne and remember this a £2bn export industry.

What of antibiotic use in other countries?

In a global context, it is predicted that global use of antibiotics will increase from 63,000 tonnes in 2010 to 105,000 tonnes in 2030. Up to a third of the increase in livestock will be routine use for disease prevention or growth promotion.

In Europe, the use of antibiotics for growth promotion was banned in 2006. We have spent a lot of time and money adjusting our systems and breeding since then to compensate for this.

There are concerns about the standards in US agriculture production today. The US Food and Drug Administration is currently consulting on stopping over the counter sales of injectable antibiotics such as oxytetracycline, penicillin, sulphamezathine, and erythromycin and bringing these under veterinary control.

Yes, you did read that correctly. It is only just a few years ago that in feed and in water medication came under veterinary control in the USA.

The US is in the position where its production methods will have to change, which will only add to their production costs.

Therefore, I am proud of what our industry is achieving. It is a key part of our brand which we need to get onto the public's radar.