Opinion

Future antimicrobial usage: We mustn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater

It’s easy for pressure groups to cast aspersions on antimicrobial usage within livestock production systems.

But the reality is that members of the general public are now aware of the issues concerning antibiotic resistance. They also know that vets and farmers are using drugs of this kind on a regular basis.

Given this backdrop, it’s a ‘no brainer’ for the media at large to profile the farming industry as the real baddie in the antibiotic resistance ‘blame game’.

This is why it is so important for agriculture to be scrupulously clean when it comes to this matter. As an industry, we must take the initiative on the issue.

Leaving it to the health professionals to tell agriculture how and when the industry can use antimicrobials is the worst of all worlds.

Targets may well be set for the levels of antimicrobial residues found in all food products. And, no doubt, these statutory limits will be reduced as the years pass by.

Such developments will, inevitably, spell the end for the use of antimicrobials as a means of preventing or curtailing disease spread within groups of livestock.

In turn, the focus will be placed on the use of vaccines, so as to provide this level of safeguard: And rightly so.

But before we get anywhere near such a level of management control, there is so much that farming can do to curtail the use of antimicrobials within the sector.

The use of selective dry cow therapy within the dairy sector is a case in point. Vets up and down the country are now extolling its virtues.

But in order to make the technique a feasible option, herdowners must be milk recording. And, as far as I am aware, only 60% of Irish dairy farmers use this specific management system at the present time.

However, there is no doubt that the widespread adoption of selective dry cow therapy would dramatically reduce the level of antimicrobial usage within the milk sector.

But the bottom line is that antibiotics must be maintained for use in those cases where the welfare of animals is in question. For example, no matter how good a farmer’s calf rearing practices are, the odd animal will contract pneumonia.

And when the vet is called out, invariably, the only way of keeping that animal alive is to give it a shot of antibiotic. If the time comes that such practices are outlawed, then it will be a bad day for Irish agriculture.

This is why it is so important for the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine to be an equal partner with the Department of Health when it comes to agreeing Ireland’s future antimicrobial strategy.