(Beyond Pesticides, May 23, 2017) Health ministers from the G20 nations, the largest advanced and emerging economies, identified Antimicrobial Resistance (AMR) as a “current and increasing threat and challenge to global health” and committed the member countries to several actions aimed at reducing the occurrence of AMR. The outcome of the first meeting of G20 health ministers, the Berlin Declaration of the G20 Health Ministers, addresses a wide range of global health issues, including AMR.
The G20 declaration contains little more than a mention of antimicrobials in agriculture, but both it and the G20 Agriculture Ministers’ Declaration support WHO’s Global Action Plan on Antimicrobial Resistance. WHO’s action plan includes measures of effectiveness of actions, including member state adoption of “policies on use of antimicrobial agents in terrestrial and aquatic animals and agriculture, including: implementation of Codex Alimentarius and OIE [Organization for Animal Health] international standards and guidelines as well as WHO/OIE guidance on the use of critically important antibiotics; phasing out of use of antibiotics for animal growth promotion and crop protection in the absence of risk analysis; and reduction in nontherapeutic use of antimicrobial medicines in animal health.”
The G20 meeting last weekend was not the first time world leaders have come together to discuss, in great detail, the issue of AMR. In September 2016, the United Nations (UN) General Assembly, comprised of delegates from 193 countries, addressed the alarming rise of antibiotic resistance. Prior to this historic meeting, the international body had only convened health-related meetings on three other issues: Ebola, HIV, and noncommunicable diseases. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the UN health agency, “Antimicrobial resistance has become one of the biggest threats to global health, food security, and development today.” At this high-profile meeting, heads of state and heads of delegations addressed the urgency of the situation and discussed multisectoral approaches to addressing antimicrobial resistance.
The most significant agreement to come out of the Declaration is the commitment by member countries to have implementation National Action Plans on AMR as called for in the WHO Action Plan “well underway” by 2018. According to the Declaration, approximately one-third of the 194 WHO member countries currently have an AMR action plan in place, and an additional one-third have begun to develop such a plan. Other efforts outlined in the Declaration include increased public education campaigns about the causes and harms of AMR, reinvigorating research and development in the antimicrobial industry, and increased monitoring at the national and regional levels. All of these have the potential to play a critical role in the global reduction of AMR.
The development of resistance by bacterial, viral, and fungal microorganisms to antimicrobial medicines is primarily due to inadequate health care systems, the improper use and overuse of these medicines in humans, agriculture, and aquaculture, as well as antimicrobial residues that make their way into water, soil, and crop systems. In the U.S., antibiotic-resistant microorganisms cause over two million illnesses and approximately 23,000 deaths each year as a direct result of antibiotic-resistant infection. A report published this spring identified antibiotic use in conventional plant and animal agriculture as contributing to bacterial resistance to critical life-saving human medicines and the importance of organic agriculture in eliminating antibiotic use. The report, Agricultural Uses of Antibiotics Escalate Bacterial Resistance, published in Pesticides and You, finds that while antibiotic use in animal agriculture is widely acknowledged as harmful, the use of antibiotics in chemical-intensive crop production also poses unnecessary and significant risks.
The vast majority of antibiotics sold in the U.S. is used in agriculture. According to a report by Consumers Union and Physicians for Social Responsibility, the non-therapeutic use of antibiotics in livestock production accounts for nearly four times as much as are used for human illness. Typically, low levels of antibiotics are administered to animals through feed and water to prevent disease and promote growth. This is generally done to compensate for overcrowded and unsanitary living conditions, as is common in concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), and to fatten livestock to get them to market sooner. This process increases the risk of infectious disease outbreaks that would be averted under living conditions appropriate to each species.
In addition, the most widely used pesticide –glyphosate or Roundup— is an antibiotic. Because glyphosate disrupts a crucial pathway –the shikimate pathway—for manufacturing aromatic amino acids in plants –but not animals— many have assumed that it does not harm humans. However, many bacteria do use the shikimate pathway, and 90% of the cells in a human body are bacteria. The destruction of beneficial microbiota in the human gut (and elsewhere in and on the human body) is, therefore, a cause for concern –and a major contributor to disease. In addition to impacts on human health, glyphosate has been linked to adverse effects on earthworms and other soil biota.
Under the Organic Foods Production Act, (OFPA) certified USDA livestock producers cannot use growth promoters and hormones, whether implanted, ingested, or injected, including antibiotics. Additionally, certified USDA Organic livestock producers cannot use subtherapeutic doses of antibiotics, meaning they cannot administer low-dose antibiotic treatments that are not for the purpose of treating sick livestock. The standards also require that producers maintain living conditions that prevent infectious diseases from becoming established and adversely affecting livestock health.
In the spring of 2014, the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) voted to uphold the phase out in apple and pear production of the antibiotic streptomycin, which was set to expire on October 21, 2014. This vote came after a similar proposal to extend an exemption for oxytetracycline, another antibiotic used in apple and pear production, was rejected at the spring 2013 NOSB meeting. Beyond Pesticides, with other organizations, led the effort to remove antibiotics from organic apple and pear production because of their contribution to antibiotic resistance, organic consumer expectation that antibiotics are not used in organic food production, and the availability of alternative practices and inputs.
The widespread use of triclosan in antimicrobial soaps and personal care products, also has led to an increase in bacterial resistance. In a decision that was long overdue, on September 2, 2016, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) banned triclosan in soaps, while EPA continues to allow for its use in common household products and toys. Beyond Pesticides raised concerns about the health effects of triclosan in 2004 in the piece, The Ubiquitous Triclosan, and petitioned the agencies to ban the chemical in 2009 and 2010. In 2015, triclosan was banned in the European Union. For nearly two decades, scientific studies have disputed the need for the chemical and linked its widespread use to health and environmental effects and the development of stronger bacteria that are increasingly difficult to control. For more background, see Beyond Pesticides’ triclosan page.
Through the support of organic agriculture and in pressing for even stronger organic standards and continuous improvement, consumers are moving the market away from hazardous chemicals, including antimicrobial use. For more information on what you can do to advance organic agriculture, see Beyond Pesticides’ Keeping Organic Strong website, which provides a number of resources for people to participate in the organic review process.
All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.