Despite drug resistance concerns, antibiotic use is on the rise in farming

An analysis finds that antimicrobial drugs are used much more extensively in agriculture than has been reported [1].

Despite ongoing efforts to curtail it, antibiotic use in animal farming – a significant contributor to antimicrobial resistance, is predicted to increase by 8% between 2020 and 2030. Agriculture’s overuse of antibiotics is thought to be a pivotal contributor to bacterial infections in humans that cannot be treated with antibiotics.

Antibiotic use and livestock

In crowded, unsanitary conditions, antibiotics are commonly used to accelerate animal growth and prevent diseases among animals. Many governments have needed help to make or enforce rules to decrease antibiotic usage. For instance, although several countries, including the United States and much of Europe, ban antibiotics that promote growth, manufacturers can say they are marketing the drugs to prevent disease [2].

According to study co-author Thomas Van Boeckel, a spatial epidemiologist at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich (ETH Zurich), most countries still need to release their agricultural-antibiotic usage data publicly, so researchers have had difficulty determining the number of antibiotics used in particular countries Instead, many release the data to the World Organization for Animal Health (WOAH), which groups country’s antibiotics data into continents, so that is all that researchers can see. 

WOAH only collects antibiotic usage data from around 40% of countries. “The majority of data on antibiotic use in the world is unusable,” van Boeckel says.

Country estimates

Van Boeckel and his colleagues collected data from various governments, farm surveys and scientific articles that reported the veterinary use of antibiotics in 229 countries. Those data were cross-referenced with data on farm-animal populations worldwide and antibiotic sales for 42 countries that made those data public. As a result, they extrapolated trends for the remaining 187 countries.

In Africa, antibiotic use is twice what WOAH reports; in Asia, use is 50% higher than reported. The authors illustrate this to the fact that many countries in these regions have yet to respond to WOAH surveys. 

According to the authors, by 2030, the world will use around 107,500 tonnes of antibiotics in livestock per year, compared with just under 100,000 tonnes in 2020. The highest antibiotic usage is in Asia, China in particular, a trend expected to continue until 2030. 

The researchers also project that antibiotic use will grow the highest in Africa, rising by 25% between 2020 and 2030 owing to a growing demand for meat products. However, Mulchandani cautions that most of the 42 data-sharing countries were high-income, meaning that the types of antibiotic they use, and the purpose, might not represent all nations.

A pledge to antibiotic use reduction

In Muscat, Oman, last November, 39 countries, including Russia and India, pledged to reduce their agricultural use of antimicrobials by 30–50% by 2030. Even if that goal isn’t met, says Steven Roach, programmes director at the non-profit organization Keep Antibiotics Working, who is based in Iowa City, the agreement means that the countries are more likely to begin releasing baseline data on their antibiotic usage. 

Roach says there is potential for actual reduction if there is a global will to do so. To get a global picture of antibiotic use, he adds, the kinds of methods used in the latest study are the only way.

Van Boeckel says his team will model scenarios in the future, such as what would happen if more countries adopt stricter antibiotic distribution approaches, such as Sweden’s, which requires a veterinarian’s prescription for animal antibiotics. He adds that making usage data publicly available could increase accountability for countries and agricultural producers who do not use antibiotics responsibly.


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