Since 2009, Dutch farmers have cut animal antibiotic use by half without harming either animal welfare or their own profits. Four years into the project, their accomplishment has huge implications for farming throughout the world. In “The Abstinence Method,” in the summer issue of Modern Farmer magazine, FERN reporter Maryn McKenna takes a closer look at how the Netherlands is in the midst of a high-stakes, government-mandated experiment: Can large-scale meat production succeed without routine use of antibiotics?
McKenna, the author of Superbug: The Fatal Menace of MRSA, and an expert on antibiotic resistance, explains that antibiotics have been a crucial (and controversial) component of meat production for decades, when biologists inadvertently discovered that feeding livestock tetracycline made the animals grow faster.
“Today, food-producing animals raised and eaten in the United States receive almost 30 million pounds of antibiotics per year,” reports McKenna. “That’s several times what our country’s 300 million humans take and, unlike humans, animals receive antibiotics when they are not sick.”
The Netherlands, which is roughly the size of Maryland, is Europe’s largest meat exporter. In 2004, an outbreak of a drug-resistant staph infection, or MRSA, linked to farming alarmed the public. In 2009, a second outbreak of a more serious drug-resistant bacteria, which originated in chicken and its meat, forced the government to act.
At that time, the Dutch Minister of Agriculture, Gerda Verburg, worked with industry to develop new policies that included a ban on preventative dosing, using antibiotics only by prescription, and cutting the use of antibiotics by 20 percent in the first year and by 50 percent in the third year after the program began.
“In 2013, the ministry announced that antibiotic sales to livestock farms dropped 56 percent between 2007 and 2012,” writes McKenna. “Farmers had effectively stopped using the most critical drugs, the ones that posed the greatest risk of creating dangerous resistance in humans.”
The Netherlands released its annual report on antibiotic use in animals in 2013, revealing that resistant bacteria is reducing in pigs, veal, chickens, and dairy cattle. A Dutch farmer tells McKenna: “We decided that animal health, and human health, would be our priority. I don’t need to take antibiotics every day. There’s no reason my pigs should either.”