The leading discussion today from conference presentations to one-on-one chats with livestock producers, health professionals and government officials is antibiotics. While the animal agriculture world adjusts to the new Food and Drug Administration antibiotic rules, the importance of this essential health tool to work effectively for humans and animals is one common concern that agriculture and non-agriculture share.
Last week, the United Nation’s General Assembly signed an agreement to slow down the spread of superbugs — bacteria that have become resistant to antibiotics. In action deemed historical, the UN General Assembly committed to a broad, coordinated approach to address the root causes of antibiotic resistance across multiple sectors, especially human health, animal health and agriculture. This UN declaration requires countries to develop a two-year plan to protect the effectiveness of antibiotics.
Yet, I am personally still debating if antibiotic stewardship in human health is at the same level of focus as it is for agriculture. After all, is it not easier to focus and regulate animal agriculture? Let me state before the comments come flooding in, I understand, support and practice responsible antibiotic-use on the farm.
Still, reading through global media headlines, maybe my theory is not too far off the mark with food animals taking the lead in headlines and opening paragraphs.
Nevertheless, on the same day the announcement of the historical UN agreement, a interesting swine research from an international consortium of researchers from INRA (France), University of Copenhagen and SEGES (Denmark), BGI-Shenzhen (China) and NIFES (Norway) was released. The team of researchers established the first category of bacterial genes in the gut of pigs. After analyzing stool samples from 287 pigs representing different breeds and selected pig lines from 11 different farms in France, China and Denmark, the scientists identified 7.7 million genes and a large number of known and unknown bacteria. The study also revealed the prohibition of the use of antibiotics as growth promotants in Denmark and France seems to have reduced a load of antibiotic-resistant genes in the French and Danish pigs, but still, pigs in these countries harbor genes conferring resistance to a large number of antibiotics. Note, no pigs from the United States from the different production models traditional, organic or no antibiotic-free were studied.
A concept that is not so foreign to the pork industry — gut health is a significant piece of the puzzle. As this newest research is being absorbed and analyzed, the detailed knowledge of the many genes in the gut bacteria will no doubt serve as a good model for the role of bacteria in relation to human disease and also valuable knowledge-based information for pig farming. It really will come down to how the research will be utilized for the greater good.
As the world digests recent reports from the United Kingdom, stating antibiotic-resistant infections will outpace cancer by 2050 as the global leading cause of death, it is perhaps time to stop the blame game, look at the whole picture and just move forward together and equally.
Honestly, the real world problem is we can’t afford to lose antibiotics in the animal or human health arsenal. Research on new antimicrobials is limited and ever-changing regulations will further challenge the move forward.