With the aim of avoiding potentially dire consequences, the French Ministry of Agriculture presented an analysis of possible actions to take to prevent the problem of antibiotic resistance in agriculture. France is taking the problem seriously and has devoted resources to fighting it.
The widespread overuse of antibiotics in farm animals worldwide has contributed to the growth of so-called “super bugs” – bacterial infections that are resistant to treatment by antibiotic medicines. Contributing to this problem is the way the antibiotics are often used in farm animals. Not only are they put to work in legitimate ways (to fight infections), but also as a preventative measure (to fight future infections that haven’t occurred yet) and for their side effect of causing an increase in the growth rate of some animals.
The resulting – and alarming – appearance of superbugs that are resistant to antibiotics presents “one of the greatest health challenges of the 21st century,” according to a French Ministry of Agriculture report, which laid out a possible future where potentially millions of people could die around the world from even minor infections if antibiotic resistance isn’t handled. France has laid out a list of proposals for combatting it.
One part of this plan is the simplest and has already largely taken place in France – the reduction in the use of antibiotics. Using antibiotics as growth promoter has already been banned since 2006 in the European Union, including France. Additionally, a 2014 French law lays out strong principles and rules for when antibiotics can and cannot be used in farm animals, with a view toward reducing their use to only the absolutely necessary cases.
And the Ecoantibio program from 2011 lays out 40 steps that farmers can take to reduce the need to use antibiotics in the first place, including creating less risk for animal infections by providing more space for animals, for example. The result of all of these efforts is that France has reduced its total antibiotic use from about 1,400 metric tons in 2000 to about 700 metric tons in 2013, with the level decreasing each year. A European Union report showed a 20% decrease in antibiotic use in France from 2011 to 2013, far faster than the 8% decline measured across Europe.
Another part of the plan involves using alternative treatments for infections. Some of the possibilities laid out in the report include using viruses that attack certain types of bacteria but otherwise don’t harm the farm animal or creating a sort of vaccine against targeted types of bacteria, as well as other types of therapy like phytotherapy or food supplements.
One company in Brittany, Olmix, has recently tested a potentially innovative solution to the problem by replacing antibiotics for a group of farms with a total of 500,000 chickens with green algae collected off the coast of Brittany. Algae has presented promising signs of efficacy against bacteria and could be used a potential new source of antibiotics. Another plank of the plan involves creating new antibiotics, which is potentially the hardest solution. For a variety of reasons, no new families of antibiotics have been released in nearly 20 years. Part of the reason is the lack of profit involved in creating new antibiotics and a lack of interest in research.
France is taking the threat of this problem very seriously and is including it as an integral part of its public health policy going forward. “Even if the darkest scenarios don’t end up happening, it is essential to immediately adopt a general attitude favorable for prevention,” the report states, concluding that the world must “move toward a more integrated way of thinking, including research of new technical solutions or updating old ones and improving the system of raising farm animals.”