Farmers play a fundamental role in advancing the cause of raising livestock free of antibiotics. Nicolette Hahn Niman is a rancher in Northern California, a passionate advocate of sustainable food production and an author of books and essays on related topics. Richard Young, Policy Director of the Sustainable Food Trust, is a seasoned supporter of organic farming standards, and a respected researcher of agriculture, disease and the misuse of antibiotics in farm animals. He farms 390 acres of land in the Cotswolds, UK, where he raises sheep and cattle. Together Richard and Nicolette bring a holistic perspective to antibiotic use, agribusiness and what it means to be an ethical livestock farmer and steward of the land.

The conversation below was originally published as part of The Lexicon of Sustainability’s Food List, on the term Antibiotic Free.

Nicolette Hahn Niman: When you take into account the impact on soil, water pollution, water usage, air pollution – everything, really – it’s clear that raising cattle and other grazing animals on grass is so much more environmentally appropriate. Whether you’re considering the healthiness of the meat or the humane treatment of the animals, or the impact on the community, there are a lot of other arguments that need to be taken into consideration when you’re comparing different systems.

The way cattle raising works in the US, you have the herds – the mothers and calves – in the west of the country. The offspring are then sent to feedlots, which tend to be in the centre. That’s the bulk of the way the industry is shaped. And in the mainstream US cattle industry, once the animals are in a feedlot, they will be continually fed antibiotics, both to stimulate their growth and to prevent them from getting diseases from the stress of being in that crowded environment and eating a diet that is different from what they are used to and what their bodies are most adapted to.

Richard Young: In the UK approximately 59% of all antibiotics are given to pigs, 32% to poultry and about 5% or 6% to cattle, and most of those to dairy cattle. So cattle get a much smaller proportion of the antibiotics in UK, and yet we have, for example, 33 million sheep and only five million pigs and yet the pigs have 120 times more antibiotics than the sheep. So, if you work that out with relative numbers, it means that the pigs are actually getting over 1,000 times more antibiotics than an individual sheep.

NHN: That really illustrates the contrast between keeping an animal out on grass and keeping it confined, right?

RY: To be fair to the pig producers, the other thing is that pigs are much more prolific. If you take a sow, you’ll be having two litters of pigs a year, sometimes more than two, with 14 or 15 piglets each time – she could be producing 30 piglets a year. Whereas sheep normally only produce one, two or possibly three lambs each year. But on the other hand, I think that there’s a huge difference that largely relates to the difference between intensive and extensive farming systems.

NHN: Because in an extensive system, where the animals are outdoors, they’re exercising, they’re breathing fresh air, they’re getting sunshine, they’re essentially getting the elements of what it takes to be a healthy animal. Whereas when you’re in a crowded confined building, as almost all pigs and poultry are, you’re really struggling as an individual animal to remain healthy, because you’re not breathing fresh air, in fact you’re breathing a lot of fumes, you’re breathing a lot of dust. In the US, respiratory illnesses for pigs are the number one health problem and that’s one of the main reasons they use so many antibiotics in pigs. I think it’s very difficult for them to stay healthy in a place like that without drugs.

RY: Well, I think, actually, if you go back to the US before 1949 or 1950 and to the UK before 1953 we didn’t really have the sort of intensive livestock production that we’ve become used to. Once they started using antibiotics for growth promotion and got legislation to allow antibiotics to be used in this routine way, it made possible the intensive confinement of pigs and poultry. Because before that, some of the attempts to keep animals intensively in the 1920s and 1930s became uneconomical because of the levels of mortality that occurred.

NHN: They kept trying to figure out ways to confine them because it would save a lot of money, a lot of labour and a lot of resources. So there were a lot of attempts at this; but as you say, it didn’t become routine to add antibiotics until the 1950s, and that’s when it really enabled this kind of intensive production. But, of course, when that began, there were all kinds of downstream effects, and the most troubling of those is that antibiotics were getting out into the water supply, they were getting into the food supply, they were getting into the air. So we push down on one part of the system and something else pops up. That’s very much the case with antibiotics, you use them maybe as a shortcut, as a way to cheapen production, but then you have these negative downstream effects.

RY: I tend to think that the whole concept of growth promotion was really a very clever ploy by the drug companies to get legislators to agree to allow antibiotics to be used routinely. If you think about it, in 1953, when the British Government first allowed penicillin and tetracycline to be put in livestock feed for growth promotion, that was just 10 years after penicillin had first become available for regular use in the UK and the first time in the whole of human history that we could treat bacteria and infections, which had been killing people for thousands of years. Literally 10 years later, we start putting it in the animal feed supplies on a regular basis. Of course, at that time they didn’t understand that antibiotic resistance was transferable between bacteria or that the small, low, sub-therapeutic doses were actually more dangerous than therapeutic doses, because they tend to encourage resistance.

NHN: In this particular issue, you have the convergence of the drug industry, the food industry and agribusiness, all coming together to argue against regulating the use of these antibiotics. I think the only real solution is going to come from public pressure. Because of the incredible political power that these industries have in our legislative system, change is going to have to be generated by consumer pressure. That’s my main message about this issue, that this has to come from people choosing not to buy meats that were raised on the daily consumption of antibiotics. Consumers must tell their legislators and tell the retailers, ‘We want our animals to be raised without being fed antibiotics’.

Industrial agriculture keeps animals in a stressful environment. They use antibiotics as a crutch. When corporations raise livestock, they want maximum return on their investment. The way they get that is through increased production. If they pour concrete, they want as many animals on that concrete as possible. If there’s a building over the top of it, they want as many animals in there as will fit. It isn’t natural for animals to be in those tightly confined quarters and, as a result, the stress and environment make them vulnerable to disease, they feed them sub-therapeutic antibiotics to prevent them from getting sick. The antibiotics also increase performance and weight gain.

Nicolette Hahn Niman is a lawyer and livestock rancher. She is a passionate advocate of sustainable food production and author of Defending Beef (2014), Righteous Porkchop: Finding a Life and Good Food Beyond Factory Farms (2010) and numerous essays for The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, The and The Huffington Post. She has given talks contrasting industrial production with sustainable farming all over the US. Previously, she was Senior Attorney for the environmental organisation Waterkeeper, where she was in charge of the campaign to reform the concentrated livestock and poultry industry. She lives in Northern California with her son, Miles, and her husband, Bill Niman, founder of Niman Ranch, a natural meat company supplied by a network of more than 700 traditional farmers and ranchers.

Richard Young, SFT Policy Director, has been an editor of the journal New Farmer & Grower and was chairman of the Soil Association’s Symbol Committee, which drew up detailed organic farming standards in the 1980s. For the past 17 years, he has campaigned against the misuse of antibiotics in agriculture, seeing this as a threat not only to human health but also to farmers’ long-term ability to treat infectious disease in their animals. He has also studied issues relating to agriculture and greenhouse gas emissions, as well as the underlying causes of bovine tuberculosis and Johne’s Disease. As a devoted cattle and sheep farmer, and avid yet informed meat eater, he is a strong supporter of the benefits associated with meat from grass-fed animals. Richard Young and his sister Rosamund nurture 390 acres in the Cotswolds in the UK.

Sign up to our Newsletter

Stay up to date with the latest SFT views and news