Health and animal welfare campaigners concerned about the proliferation of superbugs in humans are calling for a ban on the overuse of antibiotics in farm animals.
They say the routine use of antibiotics in livestock could lead to bacteria becoming resistant and such “superbugs” could spread to humans.
Sample tests they conducted in rivers near farms, in slurry and in chicken litter found resistant bacteria.
The government said it is considering new restrictions on antibiotic use.
A spokesperson for the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra) said: “We do not support routine preventive use of antibiotics in animals – they should not compensate for poor husbandry practices and we will continue to look to strengthen legislation in this area. “
The National Farmers Union said UK agriculture is “a leader in the responsible use of antibiotics”.
Antimicrobial resistance (AMR) has been described by the World Health Organization as “one of the greatest threats to global health, food security and development today”.
The overuse of antibiotics, both in human medicine and agriculture, has made them less effective and led to the emergence of “superbugs” – strains of bacteria that can no longer be treated with certain drugs.
The latest data from the UK Health Security Agency shows that the estimated total number of serious antibiotic-resistant infections in England will increase by 2.2% in 2021 compared to 2020, from 52,842 to 53,985.
Researchers from the Alliance to Save our Antibiotics and World Animal Protection tested superbugs in rivers next to a dozen intensive higher welfare pig and poultry farms in Warwickshire, Herefordshire, Devon, Norfolk and the Wye Valley and in the slurry of four intensive dairy farms and in one chicken manure sample.
They said they found a series of antibiotic-resistant genes and resistant strains of bacteria, Escherichia coli (E. coli) and Staphylococcus aureus (S. aureus).
They said higher levels of at least one type of resistance were found downstream from five of the eight intensive farms. According to the report, none of the four outdoor pig or chicken farms tested with higher welfare downstream had higher levels of any form of resistance than upstream.
“Overall, our findings suggest that intensive livestock farms are likely to discharge resistance genes and superbugs into public waterways,” the report, which was co-authored with Fera Science and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, concluded.
Intensive ‘factory’ farming practices have been accused of contributing to the increase in AMR, with claims that large numbers of closely spaced animals can be a breeding ground for disease and lead to whole herds or flocks being given antibiotics to control the animals. to hold. distant illness.
Cóilín Nunan, scientific advisor to the Alliance to Save Our Antibiotics, said higher affluence farming methods were needed to keep the risk of disease and antibiotic use low.
“Most antibiotics ingested by humans or animals are excreted along with antibiotic-resistant bacteria. When manure or slurry is spread on land, the number of resistant bacteria in soil and water increases,” he said.
“The best way to reduce the impact of agriculture is to cut back heavily on antibiotic use, and this means keeping animals in healthier conditions so they rarely need medication.”
Professor Isabelle Durance, director of the Cardiff Water Research Institute, who was not involved in the study, told the BBC it is widely accepted that faeces that enter bodies of water can carry resistant bacteria and genes, and that could be from are of agriculture.
“We know that with fecal material from agricultural production, there is some amount going into wastewater. You can have perfectly healthy chickens with bacteria that have antimicrobial resistance. Once fecal material gets into water bodies, there will be antimicrobial resistant bacteria,” she explained from.
But she cautioned that it was “extremely difficult” to link the bacteria in rivers to a specific source.
Peter Greig, the co-founder of Pipers Farm, oversees 45 higher welfare outdoor farms in Somerset, Devon, Cornwall, Wales and East Anglia who, he says, use antibiotics only when sick animals are in need and not as routine preventative measure .
Mr Greig said he was not surprised by the report’s findings: “It’s a good idea. The faeces that come out of an industrial pig or poultry environment are then dispersed so that it ends up in groundwater and rivers. That causes a great disturbance of the balance of nature.”
In January, the EU banned all routine use of antibiotics on farms and all preventive antibiotic treatments of groups of animals to tackle the overuse and misuse of the drugs.
The government had supported a ban in 2018 but has yet to carry out the public consultation it announced.
Defra said proposed changes to existing regulations on antibiotic use on farms will be submitted for public consultation “in due course”.
Meanwhile, the latest annual UK Veterinary Antibiotic Resistance and Sales Surveillance (UK-VARSS) report, published earlier this month, found that sales of antibiotics for use in livestock have fallen by 55% since 2014.
Cat McLaughlin, of The Responsible Use of Medicines in Agriculture (RUMA) Alliance, said livestock farmers “continue to make positive progress in reducing antibiotic use”.
But she added: “We must remember that antibiotics are important tools that the veterinary industry needs to protect animal health and welfare against disease challenges.”