Who will pay the price for high profile problems

Gwyn Jones' Farm Diary
Gwyn Jones' Farm Diary

Rain at the weekend brought the dry spell to an end, and what a remarkable run of weather we have had.

Our maize is off at Tillington and recorded very good yields indeed and a very high level of starch, in what has been one of the best seasons after a tricky start in the spring. Grass growth is still good, but we had a problem with one group of young dairy heifers where the wormer used (bought from the vet) did not work as well as it might. They are now sorted thankfully.

Retailers are reeling as profits plummet, scandals are discovered and consumers change habits. The latest victim is Sainsbury’s following the departure of Justin King (the real trick is knowing when to leave?); new CEO Mike Coupe is struggling to explain what has gone wrong.

Tesco in the meanwhile is to be investigated by the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) and the ‘Groceries Adjudicator’ Christine Tacon has got stuck in as well to see if any of the ‘codes’ have been broken by the giant when dealing with and paying suppliers.

To add to Tesco’s woes, there is a £3.2 billion shortfall in its staff pension fund and with 300,000 staff, past and present promised pensions costing £11.3 billion, as of February there was only £8.1 billion in the kitty!

With each turn in this road I worry more and more about who will eventually pay the price for all of this over the coming months and years; pressure on suppliers can only increase in my view.

I took part in a large conference last week which ran over three days, held in Amsterdam. It was the 3rd International Conference on the Responsible Use of Antibiotics in Animals, with 70 speakers from all over the world; experts in health, medicine, microbiology, marine biology, cell biology, immunology, science, research, veterinary, banking, economics, farming, animal nutrition, and so on.

I gave two papers and Chaired the two sessions in the afternoon of the second day, which were excellent. We had an unusual amount of honesty from speakers, many candidly admitting that very little is known in certain areas, that there are no immediate answers to some problems, and that researchers do exaggerate an issue in order to get government funding.

What were the biggest messages to take home from such a gathering and how important are they? The first message is a rather obvious one but rather important.

Resistant genes do not kill people, it is bacteria that kills people and not enough is done to ensure that harmful bacteria does not infect. We should focus a great deal more on that and as a result we would have fewer problems and less use of antibiotics in human medicine. A new approach to cleanliness and treatment of all meats in abattoirs should be considered in order to greatly reduce or eliminate harmful bacteria. The best cost: benefit is in prevention, and in Denmark research is working hard to see if ‘washing’ with organic acids, hot water de-contamination and other methods will provide the solutions.

Very little is known about the effects of treating farm animals with antibiotics on human health and the little that is known suggests that there is little evidence to link the two (below 1% according to microbiologists) .

However, even if we knew nothing at all, it is still common sense to reduce the amount of antibiotics used on farms wherever possible, especially in the European countries which have high usage.

Europe does have programmes of reduction in some of these countries which are delivering huge reductions, and care must be taken not to go too far too fast. In developing countries farmers buy antibiotics to treat themselves and their families and their animals over the counter.

Remarkably, without a veterinary surgeon’s expert assistance, it seems that these farmers achieve 80% success rate in curing their animals!

Aquaculture is a massive industry in Asia, and as it is dominated by small scale fish farming there are no controls and there is almost complete ignorance about this vast industry. Aquaculture is 85% of all agriculture in China and Asia, growing at 6% per annum and bigger than the ‘capture’ method of fishing.

Antibiotics are used (bought over the counter and administered in feed), no one knows how much or how effective it may be, resistance is unknown; there is no data. Risk analysis cannot be addressed, subject matter is vast; where is the expertise? Lack of funding is a problem. The trade in farmed fish in Asia is bigger than rice or coffee.

Asia and China account for 5 billion meals a day and are responsible for 70% of all food demand. Lack of arable land puts trade at the centre of food production, with grain bought in increasing quantities, not so much to eat but to feed animals, mostly chicken and pigs.

In the USA they are at last taking notice of antibiotic used not only as medicines but as a growth promoter, and whilst they are years behind the EU, action is at last been taken and it is going to be very tough on American and Canadian Vets on the front line, as under the new regulations they will lose their livelihood if they don’t get it right. It will hit small farmers the hardest unless they can tap into high value and niche markets, as increased legislation drives consolidation; always.

Consumers drive demand so they say, but in fact it’s the vocal 1% which delivers pressure group messages to retailers, who then react.

The remaining 99% want choice and mostly buy on price, especially (as we have seen of late) in recession. Retailers want to make supply chain claims, react to the 1%, but must maintain low-cost choice, which they do by putting more pressure on the supply chain, where farmers bear the brunt of supply chain demands. Attitude to food is shaped by emotion and not science, therefore perception of risk is poorly understood, and the ability to blame attracts journalists.

The main points to take home were that antimicrobial resistance in human medicine is a major threat, but not at the very top alongside terrorism as has been claimed by some.

That slot is occupied by food security which is a much greater and very serious threat. The link between antibiotic use on farms in order to keep animals healthy, and human health, is not proven and likely to be very small.

However we should all work hard in the agriculture industry to reduce the amounts used by keeping our animals healthier in the first place. This is not only common sense and good husbandry, but saves money. Antimicrobial resistance has been a fight between two lobbies, and this must change and is now slowly changing.

The scientific community should take up the challenge of communication; public health is the driver and therefore they should go public. If they don’t, bad science will win as there are scientists (a few) who don’t need data, as they invent their own in order to conclude that antibiotics are bad. The media will run these scare stories as frightening people sells!