Farming Tips and Advice – Videos and Blogs from Tommy the Vet

‘Push versus Pull’ AMR

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Push versus pull,

When we talk about changing behaviours it often recognised as one of the most difficult things you can do. In simple terms change can occur by being pushed into it, or by the pull effect often changing because we know the change we make can have a significant benefit.  One big change coming down the tracks over the coming years is our use of antibiotics in farm animal production. This will be on the back drop of the global issue we now face around antimicrobial resistance.

Antibiotic resistance is not new, however it is now front and centre in not only farming media but in general media as well. The W.H.O (world health organisation) now recognises it as a huge issue facing or threatening modern medicine.

Einstein who knew a bit, once said the definition of insanity was

‘Continuing to do the same thing and expecting different results’.

So change will and must happen over the coming years. We will always need to use antibiotics to treat sick animals. We must now focus more on keeping animals healthy and reducing the need for them.


So how do bacteria become resistant?

Bacteria were around before the dinosaurs, just like all life forms they have adapted to survive. This is continuing to this day and is the basis of ‘Darwins theory of natural selection’. There are all types of bacteria good and bad (pathogenic) all around us in our farm yards and lives. When Marie Curie discovered the anti-bacterial properties of the fungus penicillin she changed modern medicine forever in 1928. The birth of antibiotics gave us a tool to fight these pathogenic bacteria. Now the bacteria are fighting back, through gene mutations and their ability to transfer this resistance in the large populations of bacteria. With the overuse of antibiotics we can further expedite the problem by leaving high numbers of these resistant bacteria in the environment or in humans and animals.

The problem is this serious issue is very complex with much blame being thrown around. Some blame over prescribing in human medicine others claiming food producing animals are the root of all evils. The problem when these issues become complex and heated, the people that need to listen the most, often switch off.

For me this issue has two battle fronts if we are to win the war. There is a political one and a people one.

Poltically things will change, where our use of antibiotics will be curtailed. This will be the ‘push’ mechanism of change. Where through most often legislation we are forced to change habits and old practices. This will be necessary to halt the spread of this threat to human and animal medicine. The problem is this is further complicated by two different arguments the one of perceptions and those of the actual reality.

People will use the perception of this threat to beat the agriculture industry with. We do need change in places but not widespread abuse. The consumers of food are in the middle listening to a mixture of perceptions and realities. It can be confusing for them to know which is fact or not. Often the stories with the most emotional/dramatic content win the day. Sadly these stories often are high in emotion and low in science.

Calls for a blanket ban on antibiotics in farm animals, to even banning farming, etc.. The scale of severity varies depending on who is spinning the story. The reality is yes we need to look at our use of antibiotics and reduce them  in food producing animals. We must also remember in Ireland all antibiotic drugs have strict withdrawals and are prescription only medicines, so much of what we do is compliant already. We need to still use antibiotics, as they are an essential tool but the emphasis must be strongly placed now, on disease prevention. This is already happening on the ground.

We now must reduce our antibiotic usage in a careful and scientific manner. We must increase education and training around correct antibiotic usage. Correct doses, routes and length of courses are very important. We must significantly reduce our use of CIAs (critically important antibiotics). Of course using antibiotics where appropriate and not using them where there is no need.

Setting out a framework for reduction (targets) across sectors. Backing this up with the relevant education and support tools.

So we will see changes to the classes of antibiotic’s we can use (particularly CIAs critical important antibiotics). My predictions over the next 5-10 years, we will be no longer able to use methaphylaxis (treating healthy animals with antibiotics that may be at the risk of disease). Blanket Oral antibiotics at herd level will be a thing of the past and things like selective dry cow therapy will be compulsory. I have been saying that at meetings for the last number of years, people often get angry about my predictions? I’m not making the rules, but I am watching the ever evolving political and legislative landscape. The policy makers now must take action to this global threat and will ‘push’ many changes upon producers.

I often talk about and have learned the hard way, we really only can have an affect on things that are in our own control. People may feel policy already makes farming difficult, more red tape will make it impossible. We won’t or can’t hide from the realities that our antibiotic usage will be changing. We can however start thinking now about ways to proactively reduce antibiotic usage. This is a more effective means of change the ‘pull’ effect. Making decisions based on what we know to be better for our farms and animals. Make changes on our terms and timeframes.

I can’t claim to be too righteous on this subject. As a young vet all I was worried about was getting a drug that worked so the client was happy with the result. This is the type of thinking we all are involved in. it’s all most like survival or self-preservation, if a problem doesn’t affect me then I won’t be changing until I really have to. It’s that feeling of being short changed at the doctor if you don’t have something to take to make you better. It is when you have a sick calf and just want the ‘strongest’ shot for him.

When we are in these situations we are far removed from global threats or often deep intellectual debates where people often forget who they are trying to talk too. That is human nature we avoid problems often until they are on our doorstep. I’m afraid there will be no hiding from this one. We all know people that require routine surgeries that may become far from routine. It was brought home to me recently when my own son had his tonsils removed. Up to that he had several courses of antibiotics for tonsil infections. That was not sustainable so he had them removed, post-surgery he had an infection and went onto a CIA (critically important antibiotic). These are the antibiotics we use pretty much as a last line of defence. Everything worked out fine. It made me think deeply if this wasn’t the case, what if our CIAs weren’t working?

For me this personal situation made the problem ever more real. Now when I talk to people I don’t talk about genetic mutations or DNA. I talk about real life people and situations. This is far more effective for me than hard-core science and policy. It’s a noisy world and people have to see how this can affect them personally and it could. Also when it comes to current practices on farm, I ask hard questions? How would your system cope if selective dry cow therapy was compulsory? What if we weren’t allowed used methaphylaxis in young lambs to prevent disease?

I feel we have to ask hard questions and make it real for people. Everyone won’t agree, that’s ok too.

For me we can do so much when we look at management and nutrition. To do this though the person must change and must engage to see the benefits. To be fair so many have already embraced this approach. I keep it very simple, understand the natural needs of the animal, give them these conditions and we optimise welfare and production. For me we often only see problems where we push animals beyond their physiological boundaries. This is interesting one because this doesn’t necessarily mean organic farming. It means we prioritise high health status herds regardless of the farming system.

A poultry vet made a really interesting point recently at a talk, he said managing free range birds is much harder than housed flocks in controlled environments. We can control the environment, nutrition and disease so much better. This is not about driving every farming system down the route of large scale production. Or as is termed now ‘factory farming’. Actually do you know what! every farm is like a factory or should be. A great factory where the workers (animals) are looked after to their every need helping throughput, output and production.

The farming system which you chose is yours to make, but preventing disease and antibiotic reduction should be at the core of every one of those enterprises. We do this by focusing on management and welfare.

We are in the business of animal protein production for the most part in modern dairy, beef and sheep farming. We need to feed the world and for the moment this seems to me the best way to feed 8 billion people using animal protein.

The best description of sustainable for me is leaving things for the next generation better than we got them!

If we can focus more on prevention, health, management and nutrition we have a good chance. Don’t be afraid to tell the world either when you’re doing this well, there’s plenty horror stories and poor perceptions being created. We must tell a good story about where our food is being produced. We can only do this by following the actions needed for a world where antibiotic usage in farm animals is being reduced. For the Irish agriculture industry for me this is a significant challenge but also a great opportunity to further enhance our sector.

We should not despair the pharma companies and research scientists are continually looking for new solutions, most new products to market are vaccines, immune modulators and advanced nutritional support products. The science is evolving and we have never known more about what animals need to stay healthy and productive.

This is in my opinion one of the biggest global challenges to human and animal medicine.

This new challenge must be met with new thinking, approaches and collaborations such as ‘one health’.

Einstein also said

‘we cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them’

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