Will Overuse of Antibiotics Threaten Food Security?


The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) issued a warning about the use of antibiotics and other antimicrobial agents. According to the agency, overuse of these drugs is negatively “impacting rural livelihoods and food security.” The FAO is calling for a global coordinated effort to minimize the threat that overuse of antibiotics may pose to food security.

FAO’s Deputy Director-General Helena Semedo told European ministers of health and agriculture at a recent conference that “antimicrobial agents foster increasing resistance among the very microbes that cause the infections and disease they were designed to quell, thereby threatening to reverse a century of progress in human and animal health.” As a result of the threat to animal health, rural livelihoods and food security will be negatively impacted.

Semedo acknowledged that while we should make efforts to reduce use of antibiotics, many rural smallholder farmers face difficult economic decisions. “How can we eliminate hunger or improve sustainability when we cannot cure sick animals? How can we reduce rural poverty when the drugs given to ill farm workers and their families no longer have effect?,” she asked conference attendees.

Most restaurant and retail purchasing policies in the U.S. today recognize the need for antibiotics in the interest of animal well-being. The American Veterinary Medical Association testified before Congress that antibiotics are one of the most important tools that veterinarians use to protect both human health and animal health.

Antibiotic resistance is a legitimate public health concern that everyone in the food system needs to take seriously. Leading drug companies have recognized the concern about the issue and are making antibiotics available only for treatment and prevention of disease – not growth promotion. In the future, antibiotics important to human medicine will only be available under a Veterinary Feed Directive, essentially a prescription from a veterinarian.

Animal antibiotics must be used responsibly to minimize agriculture’s contribution to antibiotic resistance. But preventing disease and treating sick animals through the responsible use of antibiotics is the ethical thing to do. The responsible use of antibiotics by doctors and patients as well as veterinarians and food producers helps reduce the risk of antibiotic resistance.

Consumers in the U.S. have an amazing array of options in the meat they purchase. Choosing to consume meat from antibiotic-free systems is among those options. But it’s just one of many ways to produce safe, nutritious food.