Food production and antibiotics

There has been widespread concern for many years about the risks associated with the careless use of antibiotics in medical and veterinary situations.

Widespread use of antibiotics has been linked to the development of antibiotic-resistant ‘superbugs’ in which previously effective medicines to keep people healthy stop working. This poses a large and increasing risk to human health with many people dying each year, including in Australia from diseases that can’t be treated due to antibiotic resistance.

Industrial-scale production of cheap meat led to the widespread and largely unregulated use of antibiotics for many years. Convenient for maintaining health in animals in confined animal feeding operations conditions, where disease might otherwise emerge in stressed animals, antibiotics also conveniently increase an animal’s rate of growth, providing a two-fold economic incentive to support cheaper food production.

As the dangers became more apparent, the United Nations produced a Global Action Plan on Antimicrobial Resistance to which Australia’s response refers.

In Australia, beef, chicken and pork meat producers still use antibiotics. Feedlot beef production uses antibiotics although the feedlot industry says they’re not used as growth promotants. The Australian Chicken Meat Federation acknowledges the problem and also says antibiotic use is only used to “treat, control or prevent disease” with “a policy of no use of antibiotics for growth promotion”. 

You can see a video of the Chief Veterinary Officer, Mark Schipp, discussing what we’re doing in Australia.

And while focus has been on their use in meat production, antibiotic use in agriculture has not received the same attention.  A recent FAO, OIE and WHO investigation highlights that of 158 countries looked at, only three per cent have any regular assessment of antibiotic use on crops (versus 26 per cent monitoring human use and 23 per cent monitoring animal use).

A recent paper on antibiotic use on crops in low and middle-income countries has highlighted that, while significantly less than in the meat industry, “antibiotics are being recommended far more frequently and on a much greater variety of crops than previously thought”[1]. It also noted that usage was sometimes at many times the recommended dose. The paper estimates that 63 tonnes of streptomycin and 7 tonnes of tetracycline are sprayed on South East Asian rice crops alone, with both these antibiotics being of huge importance to human health.

Our food system’s rapid industrialisation and its globalised nature means that risks are now shared. The food system’s superficial reliability and productivist focus must be weighed against significant, long-term risks.

TAGS: agriculture, horticulture, food, farming, antibiotics, antibiotic resistance, Australia, meat


[1] Taylor, P., Reeder, R. Antibiotic use on crops in low and middle-income countries based on recommendations made by agricultural advisors. CABI Agric Biosci 1, 1 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1186/s43170-020-00001-y

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