As health experts around the world take on the problem of antimicrobial resistance and overuse of antibiotics in humans as a prime cause, world leaders are reminding us of another contributor to this global health issue: our farming system.
Ahead of this week’s General Assembly of the United Nations (UN) high-level meeting on antimicrobial resistance
, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) has released an action plan
for 2016 to 2020 on tackling drug-resistant “superbugs” in our food system. In only the fourth year that the UN has met to address the growing issue of antimicrobial resistance, the new report from the FAO marks an increased focus by health officials around the world on the agricultural practices that largely exacerbate the problem. A press release
from the FAO on their action plan emphasizes four areas of focus to support their objectives: awareness, evidence, practice, and governance
Highlighting the global scope of the issue, the World Health Organization
deems antimicrobial resistance a serious threat to worldwide public health, threatening the effective prevention and treatment of an ever-increasing range of infections caused by bacteria, parasites, viruses, and fungi. As bacterial pathogens become increasingly desensitized to our last line of defense antibiotic drugs, humans face the growing health problem of infections that are difficult to treat, causing a rise in healthcare costs, hospitalizations, and deaths. For those who are more susceptible to infections due to diabetes, cancer, surgery, or suppressed immune systems, antimicrobial resistance is an even greater threat with health and economic consequences. The FAO cites a report
estimating that antimicrobial resistance will be responsible for 10 million deaths around the world each year by 2050, making it an even bigger killer than cancer.
While much of the focus of the health community has been on the overuse of these drugs in humans as a main contributor to the rise of superbugs, the FAO’s new action plan highlights the matter of antimicrobial use in the farming of livestock. According to their new report, more than 63,000 tons of antibiotic drugs were used in 2010 in the raising of farm animals. The beneficial use of these drugs in crop and livestock production contributes to food safety, food security, and animal welfare, but their overuse threatens to undo decades of progress in human health. Recent examples of how agricultural practices can affect human health include new cases of colistin-resistant Escherichia coli
strains found in humans, with the bacterial discovery first found in samples taken from a pig in China. The report points out the factors making antibiotic use in agriculture so problematic: lack of regulation and oversight of use, poor therapy adherence, non-therapeutic use, over-the-counter or internet drug sales, and counterfeit or poor-quality drugs. Looking ahead, the FAO’s report notes concern over the fact that two-thirds of the estimated future growth of antimicrobial usage is expected to occur within the animal production sector, with use in pig and poultry production predicted to double.
The action plan outlines how the FAO intends to provide support to governments, producers, traders, and other stakeholders to adopt measures to minimize the use of antimicrobials and to combat superbugs in the food system. The organization notes it is uniquely positioned to foster collaboration across these sectors to implement better regulation and monitoring of antibiotic use in livestock. By helping countries through improving awareness of the issue of antimicrobial resistance, developing evidence about surveillance and monitoring, strengthening governance, and promoting good practices, the FAO aims to build strategies that will tackle antimicrobial resistance in agriculture around the world.
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