Science think tank calls for global phaseout of antibiotics in agriculture

On Sept. 17, the Center for Disease Dynamics, Economics & Policy (CDDEP), a Washington think tank, released alarming statistics about the rise of antibiotic-resistant infections around the world--and at least one recommendation for halting the trend that's sure to fuel an ongoing debate in the animal health industry. The group is suggesting that food-animal producers around the world completely eliminate antibiotics for growth promotion and that they greatly minimize their use of the drugs for preventing disease.

The group released its recommendations as part of a 5-chapter report on antibiotics resistance, which CDDEP published along with an interactive map on the Web that breaks down the problem by country and by infectious pathogen. The recommendations came within days of the blistering report by consumer groups criticizing fast-food chains for their antibiotics policies.

Some of the figures are shocking, to be sure. For example, the incidence of methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus is falling in North America, but it is rampant in Latin America, where 90% of cases don't respond to antibiotics, according to CDDEP's report. And in India, in 57% of the infections caused by a superbug commonly found in hospitals called Klebsiella pneumoniae were resistant to one last-resort antibiotic in 2014, up from 29% in 2008.

The authors fear that antibiotics used in agriculture are fueling the rise of drug-resistant superbugs. They cite United Nations estimates that by 2030, 105,600 tons of antibiotics will be used per year in food animals, up from 63,200 tons now. Most of that increase will be driven by growing worldwide demand for animal protein.

Ramanan Laxminarayan, the director of CDDEP

Although the use of antibiotics to promote growth in food animals has dropped in developed countries, the drugs are still used for that purpose in other regions--even though they have been shown to be ineffective compared to other methods for improving efficiency, the authors write. "Emphasis should be on improving productivity without antibiotic growth promoters, as is increasingly the case in high-income countries," they say.

The CDDEP report comes at a time when support for antibiotics-free agriculture is at an all-time high in the U.S. Even so, some in the industry worry that completely banning the drugs could endanger animal health. A recent editorial that appeared in a poultry trade magazine, for example, suggested that antibiotics bans would make it difficult for veterinarians to treat common diseases like coccidiosis, a poultry parasite that causes significant discomfort in the birds. Other industry groups, including HealthForAnimals, point out that antibiotics are useful for treating inflammatory conditions in livestock, such as lameness.

Ramanan Laxminarayan, the director of CDDEP and a co-author of the new report, hopes the data on antibiotics resistance will encourage low- and middle-income countries to rethink their policies governing the proper use of the drugs. The goal, he said in a press release, is to "empower these countries to understand the burden of antibiotic resistance in their region and then take coordinated, research-backed action to limit it."

- here's the press release
- view the interactive map here