This week the Chief Medical Officer Dame Sally Davies has raised a warning call that the threat of antiobiotic resistance is on a par with ‘climate change and terrorism.’ Most of the ensuing discussion has been around the misuse of antibiotics in human health. But there’s a parallel story to be told in the animal world and specifically in relation to the role that vets play in contributing to this problem. The scale of the impact of prophylactic use of antibiotics in intensive farming systems on the development of antibiotic resistance should not be underestimated. Believe it or not around half of all antibiotics used in this country are administered to animals.

At our farm, Bwlchwernen Fawr, we stopped using antiobiotics in the udders of our dairy cows at the end of the 1980s and have restricted their subsequent use only to intramuscular treatment either when the animal is seriously ill, where there is no alternative treatment available, or to prevent suffering on welfare grounds. Our farm records, which span the period before and after this change of practice, show that there hasn’t been a significant change, either in the number of cows who get mastitis or the number of animals that we have had to cull because of persistent infections. This is reflected in the average herd life of our cows which has remained stable. I feel strongly that this restricted use should form the basis of which all farmers use antibiotics in the future, especially after the chief medical officer’s warning.

However, we are a long way from that position at the moment. There is understandable fear amongst many dairy farmers of cutting back on antibiotic use. This is often reinforced by vets and advertisements from the pharmaceutical industry, where there are clearly vested interest in maintaining existing levels of antibiotic use. Most UK veterinary practices derive about half their net income from the sale of drugs, of which the lion’s share is antibiotics, with 90% of UK dairy cows are still treated with prophylactic long acting antibiotics at the end of each lactation.

I listened to a very interesting interview on Radio 5 Live last Monday where Richard Young, who advises the Soil Association on antibiotics use and who now also works for the Sustainable Food Trust, gave the example of how this routine use of antibiotics in intensive dairy farming is creating a perfect reservoir for the transfer of resistant organisms from animals to the human population.

It’s one thing to use antibiotics to save a life, however it’s not acceptable on a routine ‘insurance’ basis.