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27 July 2016

It is urgent: We need to reduce the use of antibiotics in livestock – can Sweden lead by example?

Summary of the seminar Antibiotikan i djurhållningen – vad kan Sverige lära världen? 7th July 2016, Almedalen

”Antibiotic resistance might one day be a challenge as big as climate change” the moderator said and kicked off SIANI’s second seminar in the political week of Almedalen. The topic that Peter Sylwan, here moderator and science journalist, was referring to is the global use of antibiotics in livestock and animal husbandry. We’re currently seeing a problem with antimicrobial resistance (AMR) due to irresponsible use of antibiotics. The overuse and misuse of antibiotics globally will have major side effects. In the long run we might not be able to cure even the simplest of diseases, and it will pose threats to food security and ultimately to human and animal health.

Sweden, together with Norway and Island are top countries when it comes to using antibiotics in a controlled and efficient way. A striking comparison was made during the seminar: in the US 70% of all antimicrobial medicines are used in animal husbandry and in Sweden the number land on 15%.

Global context and Swedish history

Professor Ulf Magnusson, expert in animal health began his talk by putting livestock production and the use of antibiotics in a context that the audience could relate too. 800 million people are currently hungry. Many people are also exposed to what we call “hidden hunger” which is a lack of micronutrients in the food and leads to stunting and brain malfunction. Food deriving from animals helps in supplying the right micronutrients that humans need. “Hence, this is why we need healthy animals!” the professor explains. Clearly it is worthy and ethical to have healthy animals but good health also contributes to increased production of animal products, is a much more efficient use of the animals and also positive from an environmental perspective since emissions are reduced.

Åsa Odell, vice president of the Swedish Federation of Farmers (LRF), told us about the use of antibiotics in animal production in Sweden. In the past, Sweden has been using the drugs for a long time and quite extensively so, but 1986 LRF introduced a ban of using antibiotics as growth promoters. This ban sprung out of debates around animal welfare. After the ban we could actually see an increase in the use, which can be correlated with the fact that for many farmers it was hard to see and accept the problems that were hiding behind the use of antibiotics. Now antibiotics are only used to cure animals that are ill, Odell said. In the year of 2006 the same law was introduced in the European Union.

Zooming out again to a global scale, one of the main challenges in low-income countries is the lack of knowledge. In many places they do not even know what AMR is. “It is very difficult to make a change in animal husbandry in weak states with weak institutions” professor Magnusson says. Åsa Odell pointed out that it mainly boils down to how we take care of the animals. The stables and pigsties should be upgraded and the way you rear them is very important in terms of animal health. If you take well care of the animals you will notice a drop in diseases and do not need to give them preventative antibiotics.

Views from Sida and the Government

The general director from Sida, Charlotte Petri Gornitzka and Elisabeth Backteman, State Secretary at the Ministry of Enterprise and Innovation participated in the seminar and gave both fairly positive outlooks around the topic.

“The solution to this problem may not need to be so expensive”, said Petri-Gornitzka. We do have extensive knowledge so the issue is not that we necessarily need more financial resources but what is really crucial is that we support knowledge dissemination and uptake outside Sweden. “If we use the Swedish resource base and productive collaborations we can accomplish much”, she said. Even though Sida has several on-going initiatives (such as an ITP programme focused on animal health for practitioners in Africa), the question of antibiotics in animal welfare is in fact not highly prioritised on Sida’s agenda, Petri Gornitzka explained.

Elisabeth Backteman countered by saying that antibiotics in animal husbandry is in fact a much prioritised matter, but the government is pushing for more engagement and action internationally. As concrete examples Backteman mentioned that the government will call towards alignment of all state heads in this issue at next UN General Assembly meeting this autumn and it will also make sure to discuss around the use of antibiotics in the negotiations for the trade agreement with the US (TTIP, Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership). “Usually the Americans are not keen to let others point out their faulty production methods, rather it is the final products that are of importance for them”, Backteman pointed out.

As a closing comment, professor Magnusson said that it is absolutely excellent that we have on-going negotiations around trade and policies for use of antibiotics, but there will be conflicted interests in the transformation of the agricultural sector and to reach the Sustainable Development Goal number 2, i.e. ensuring that these 800 million people do not have to stay hungry while transforming the sector sustainably. But we do have knowledge that we can transmit and we do know that Sweden is respected and listened to, so there is a momentum and an increased awareness right now, which can aid Sweden to not only call for alignment globally around this challenge but also foster the change that is needed.

In the midst of summer each year Almedalen takes place in the medieval city of Visby on the island of Gotland and is considered one of the most important political events of the year in Sweden with more than 3800 seminars and debates this year. SIANI is very active during the week and sees it as a great opportunity to engage with relevant stakeholders on significant food and agricultural topics and to enjoy networking in a very mingle friendly atmosphere.

To find out more about our activities follow the links below (all in Swedish).

Webcast of this seminar

Summary in Swedish by Biståndsdebatten of seminar Mat och klimat utan konflikter och katastrofer – Bistånd för resiliens?

Webcast of seminar Mat och klimat utan konflikter och katastrofer – Bistånd för resiliens?

Twitter video with Åsa Odell with conclusion from seminar

Twitter video with Ulf Magnusson on “hidden hunger”  

See webcast of this seminar (in Swedish)