Turning the tide on antibiotic resistance

Transitioning to antibiotic-free poultry production requires a lot of thought, preparation and insight. Aidan Connelly, chief innovation officer, at Alltech shared his thoughts on the recent developments during the One: The Alltech Ideas Conference.

Aiden, Is there anything that we can do at this stage to turn the tide?

Understanding antibiotic resistance is actually a very complicated subject, and clearly we appreciate that overuse of antibiotics — be it on the part of humans or animals — is part of the issue. One thing about resistance is that it is actually very difficult to get rid of. The numbers are scary. They are talking about the loss of 10 million people a year. That’s 1 person every 3 seconds; by 2050, that will be a greater killer than cancer. Everybody is getting very concerned about what’s coming next.

It’s clear to me animal agriculture is not the problem in this scenario. Nonetheless, we are going to be blamed because we are an easier target and also perhaps because it’s easier to control in animal agriculture than in humans. Is it a big concern? I think it should be; I think we should all be extremely aware of what’s coming next.

Photo: Alltech
Photo: Alltech

In your presentation, you plan to reference a quote where you say this could lead to a collapse of modern medicine. That’s pretty apocalyptic. So where does the burden lie on taking action on this issue?

At this stage, I am not sure we have the ability to say it is someone else’s responsibility. I’m talking from the perspective of farming and agriculture. I think we need to be clear that the legislation coming is going to be very draconian and very severe and is going to come very quickly. It’s not just going to be the US; it’s going to be globally. It’s going to focus particularly on the continuous use of antibiotics in feed.

What are some companies or governments that you feel are taking a very positive, proactive approach?

Probably the Danes have been the most leading-edge. They certainly restricted the use of drugs in feed on a continuous basis and they have seen, however, farmers using increasing levels, particularly in the water. However, the government there is also introducing a card system whereby if you abuse drugs, you will get in trouble using a naming and shaming approach — (listing) the top veterinarians and farms by drug usage in Denmark, then visiting those farms and asking them why they are using so much. So I would see them as the most progressive in terms of this legislation.

Other countries are being affected by that as well. In particular, Sweden, Germany and the Netherlands are all following suit. I think we have a movement; if you take countries like India and China, they certainly are putting the legislation in place but not necessarily enforcement. I do feel those are going to follow as well.

Now, if a producer wants to make a switch to antibiotic-free production, where do they start? What’s involved?

The first thing is to understand the importance of making the environment as beneficial as possible. I think we think of that from a management point of view, a cleanliness point of view, a well-being point of view, but we also actually need a probiotics/bacterial point of view. Alltech’s principles, which were developed in conjunction with the University of Georgia, are that we can create an environment that can vary and have the right bacteria and the probiotics in that environment. As such, once that animal moves into the environment, they are colonised. If you get that animal off to the right start in the beginning, from then on everything is easier.

Now, the ways to do that are many. You can start by looking at using a probiotic, which we would recommend using on day one. You can look at using things such as acids or acidification of water. That is quite common in pigs and poultry and not so important for cows. So really we’re looking at many different interventions, some nutrition, some management and some in terms of the environment.

In other words, there are options for producers to transition?

Yes, the transition process is something that takes place over a period of time. There is no doubt that when you’re used to killing things, which is what antibiotics do, it’s hard to move to fostering or promoting or to growing. Nonetheless, it’s important to make that switch.

Some initial performance problems may occur. Certainly we have seen situations where people have to pay more attention now to water and how water is being given to their animals and to the feeders. They have to pay more attention to the temperature and management issues in general. The antibiotics often are capable of covering up a multitude of problems that may exist on the farm.

In essence, when you move to antibiotic-free, you need to be more management-rich and move to where management is a core issue. Frankly, that’s something that is good for us and good for our business and it’s good in the longer term.

Aidan Connolly spoke at ONE: The Alltech Ideas Conference. Audio recordings of most talks, including Aidan's, are now available on the Alltech Idea Lab. For access, click here.