The little white bottle

Helen Browning - 17 November 2011

Today sees the publication of a new report on the dangers of over using antibiotics, that we’ve published in partnership with Compassion in World Farming and Sustain as part of the Alliance to Save our Antibiotics. The overuse of antibiotics in farm animals has been a key issue for the Soil Association for many years, led by the fantastic work of Richard Young. As a practising farmer, it's an issue that’s close to my heart.

Many (non-organic) farmers routinely use antibiotics as a precautionary measure to stop their animals getting sick (something we banned in in our standards in 1985), but the impact of this practice goes way beyond just the farm gate. Evidence shows that the over use of antibiotics on farms can breed resistant bacteria – such as new strains of MSRA and E.coli – and that these bugs cross over into human populations, with potentially catastrophic consequences. Truly the Soil Association’s ethos of the interconnectedness of soil, animal and human health is writ large when you take a closer look at the use of antibiotics in agriculture.

Of course for individual farmers, reducing the reliance on antibiotics is a challenge, and I understand the nervousness that many of my farming colleagues feel about this. Indeed, when we began conversion on Eastbrook 25 years ago, the thing that made my herdsman most apprehensive was the notion of cutting back so much on antibiotic and other drug use. We had all been trained to turn to that little white bottle at the merest hint of trouble, often with no clear understanding of what bugs we were targeting, and whether therefore we were using the right drug. And it had been drummed into us that Dry Cow Therapy – the practice of putting long acting antibiotics into the udder at the end of each lactation – was essential to avoid high cell counts and loads of mastitis.

Pretty quickly, however, we realised that as long as we got our animal husbandry right – plentiful clean bedding, low stocking densities and stress, good hygiene at milking, and so on – then we really didn't need to use these drugs in anything like the quantities we had been. I reckon that in the dairy, we use about 5% of the antibiotics that we did before our organic days, and only when animals really are sick and in need of them. With our pigs, we hardly use any at all. . . perhaps one in 150 pigs will receive an antibiotic in its lifetime.

So it is possible to make the necessary changes needed on farm animal antibiotics. I’m delighted that we can work in partnership with the Alliance to raise awareness of these issues, and I hope that the Soil Association can be in a position to help other farmers build the confidence that if they invest in great husbandry, they will be able to cut antibiotic use considerably. All of us can do our bit too when we are shopping, by supporting those farmers who put in the time, investment and effort to care for their animals in ways that mean they don't need routine medication.

Helen Browning is the Soil Association's Chief Executive, and also is an organic farmer - she runs a 1,350 acre organic livestock and arable farm in Wiltshire. Her sausages and bacon can be found in the supermarkets, and her versatile team also run the village pub! Previously Director of External Affairs at the National Trust, Helen is also chair of the Food Ethics Council and was awarded an OBE in 1998 for services to organic farming.

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Clare Harding
03 December 2011 14:49

It is good to read that good husbandry leads to less infection in livestock. I eat a lot of meat and try to eat meat that has had a good life rather than meat that had a short, horrible life. Things are not perfect, and I can see that the occasional use of antibiotics will sometimes be necessary. Can farm animals be given pro-biotics afterwards to help restock their gut flora? We humans should do this. And I can't help but think that this will improve the animals overall health.

Sian Creagh-Osborne
19 November 2011 09:52

A really interesting post -thank-you. I didn't realise what seems like common sense, when we know about antibiotics in humans, has taken so long to filter into the farming world.Another great reason to stay/ go organic.

Carole Youngs
18 November 2011 13:15

I totally agree that routine, or prophylactic, use of antibiotics will lead to serious problems in the long term, and are neither good for animal or human health. Management that promotes a strong immune system and attention to health should become second-nature to good farmers! However, there are occasions where resorting to the 'little white bottle' is essential to save the life of an animal, eg. in the case of an assisted lambing or calving, so let's not over-use now or they will be useless in the future.

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