Farmers fear losses if antibiotic access cut off as drug resistance poses threat

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If governments fail to curb the practice, they’ll simply enable superbugs to keep spreading and growing.

There is no question that Canada needs to reduce its use of antibiotics, says Ellen Goddard, a professor at the University of Alberta’s faculty of agricultural, life and environmental sciences.

“The public health implications are just so serious. And, the problem is that we’re not yet at a stage where we have a substitute for antibiotics. And people are just going to get very sick as the number of antibiotic resistant bacteria grows.�

Indian chicken demand fuels resistance

In Amritsar, farmers responsible for flocks of thousands of chickens haul 50-kilogram sack deliveries to the coop twice a day, often unaware if any antibiotics lurk inside. They empty them into feeding stations and keep a watchful eye to ensure their charges are consuming enough to grow to market size.

“One day comes 20 sacks, then another time comes 25 sacks,� says Lal Bahdur through a translator, standing in an open-air chicken coop where he’s worked for several months watching over thousands of birds. More sacks arrive as the chickens age, getting closer to market weight.

Antibiotics in feed are generally used to prevent various illnesses or to help birds grow faster. Chickens can also receive antibiotics through their food or water if they’re sick. When a bird falls ill — which occurs in several hundred out of a typical flock — farmers say they call a doctor who dispenses medicine usually to the entire population.

Farmers rely on medicine also used in humans, including colistin — a so-called last-resort antibiotic used by doctors when no other drugs are working. As doctors in India increasingly turn to colistin, they have started to see resistance to it in some newborns.

Venky’s, one of India’s largest chicken processors, sells animal health-care products, including antibiotics, to other producers through its website. One of its products, Colis V is promoted as “equivalent to colistin,� and sold as more effective in combination with other antibiotics.

India, tied with Germany, is the fourth-largest consumer of antibiotics in animals, with three per cent of global market share. It is outranked only by Brazil, the United States, and China, according to estimates in a widely cited 2015 study of global trends by lead researcher Thomas Van Boeckel, a spatial epidemiologist studying infectious diseases.

In Canada, gaps in surveillance of antibiotic use on farms obscure the practice’s prevalence. The current system, for example, does not monitor use in beef cattle, though consultations are set to begin on how to collect such information.

On Canadian ranches, where cows openly graze on acres of land, ranchers dole out antibiotics mostly as medicine, either to prevent or treat infections.

Sometimes, ranchers prefer to add antibiotics to feed to avoid causing their cattle the daily stress of administering medicine.

“It works very well instead of having to try and rope or catch or corner calves,� says Tim Oleksyn, who operates a ranch north of Saskatoon.

But most Canadian producers and industry groups seem to understand the need to scale back both because of the potential fallout to human health and growing demand for antibiotic-free meat.

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