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Antibiotics revolutionised the treatment of bacterial diseases following the discovery of penicillin in 1928 but their overuse is accelerating the evolution towards ‘super bugs’ such as MRSA that are resistant to antibiotics. This is an unavoidable biological process but overuse means it is happening faster than the development of new antibiotics.

One concern is that antibiotic use in agriculture is leading to resistance in animals that then transfers to bacteria that cause human diseases such as tuberculosis, staphylococcus, e. coli, gonorrhoea and salmonella.

Globally, over 50 per cent of antibiotics are used in agriculture, rather than human medicine, and in the US it is 70 per cent.

And there is a high overlap between the antibiotics used in animals and those used in humans. Of the 41 antimicrobials approved for animal use, 31 are deemed medically important for humans by the US Food & Drug Administration.

While science has so far not proved that resistance developed in animals does pass to humans, the available data suggests there is a link and there is broad consensus on the need to reduce the use of antibiotics in agriculture.

The growth of meat consumption heightens the concern. Per person, production has risen from 23kg in 1961 to 44kg in 2016 with the number of livestock animals increasing from 12bn to 83bn – more than 11 animals for every person on earth.

Beef, pork and chicken make up almost 90 per cent of global meat production with China responsible for 26 per cent of global output, the US 13 per cent, Brazil 8 per cent, and Russia 3 per cent. However, China is estimated to account 60 per cent of global antibiotics use in agriculture by weight, partly because pig farming has the highest intensity of antibiotic use.

The main reasons to use antibiotics in agriculture are to promote growth, prevent widespread or specific diseases and to treat sick animals. However, most countries have now banned their use purely to promote growth and some – with the EU due to pass regulation imminently – ban preventative group treatments.

Antibiotic use can be reduced: vaccines and better hygiene allowed Norwegian fish farming to cut its usage by 99 per cent between 1987 to 2013, despite output growing by 20 times; Danish pork production rose despite a ban on antibiotics for growth promotion; and UK poultry farms reduced usage by 71 per cent from 2012 to 2016.

One way to reduce antibiotic usage is to change agricultural practices, such as less-intensive farming, outdoor grazing, slower-growing breeds or delaying weaning.

Finding alternatives to antibiotics can be cheaper. Substitutes include zinc oxide, coccidiostats (microbials not used in human medicine), adding blood from slaughtered pigs to pig feed, and vaccines. However, some of these alternatives can be toxic, don’t biodegrade, or spread diseases.

The pressure to reduce antibiotic usage in agriculture is nevertheless increasing from regulation, voluntary initiatives and consumer demand.

Europe is taking the strongest action, with upcoming regulations to ban most preventative use, with the US, Latin America and Asia further behind. There are early signs of action elsewhere and we expect other regions to catch-up because of the importance of this issue, with consumer demand for antibiotic-free meat increasing.

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