• Tuesday, June 7, 2016

    The antibiotic age

    Last month, I attended the Alltech ONE ideas conference. Alltech is a global company that produces lots of different products that may be used in many segments of agriculture. Every year, they host a group of bloggers to their conference and ask us to write about what we learned. This was my fourth year to attend, and I would love for you to see what I’ve learned at previous Alltech conferences.

    This year, several of the sessions I attended covered the topic of antibiotics. Alltech is a forward-thinking company that is working to reduce the use of antibiotics in food production. They offer feed supplements that farmers can use to keep their animals healthy and productive rather than using antibiotics.

    There were also several discussions about sustainable energy and the use of fossil fuels. During one of those discussions, the speaker, Ramez Naam, shared a quote from a former oil minister of Saudi Arabia.

    He said, “The stone age came to an end, not because we had a lack of stones, and the oil age will come to an end not because we have a lack of oil.”

    That discussion was about oil and energy, but I think that the premise can be applied to antibiotics.

    Agriculture has changed a great deal in the past 6 decades. Our population is growing at a staggering rate, and farmers have had to adapt to meet the demands for food in our world. Getting to this point in agriculture has taken lots of tools and one of those tools has been and still is antibiotics.

    I have written about antibiotics before. People have trouble understanding the use of antibiotics in food production; the fact that some bacteria adapt to become resistant to them, and that farmers use antibiotics to help keep their animals healthy and are careful to treat their animals in such a way that antibiotic residues don’t end up in our meat. Farmers and consumers have concerns about bacteria becoming resistant to antibiotics, and, in food production, antibiotics are at the front of everyone’s mind.

    We have to remember that the Stone Age didn’t end overnight. People slowly figured out new and more efficient ways of doing things. They found new materials and new ways to use old materials. Then, their ideas spread around the world.

    We can’t expect the use of antibiotics to end overnight either, but things are happening quickly. Farmers are using a whole-systems approach to improve animal health. Meanwhile, animal scientists are figuring out new ways to help farmers produce healthier animals without the use of antibiotics or with a vastly reduced use of antibiotics.

    At the conference, Dr. Aiden Connolly, talked about several ways that animals may be managed to help reduce or eliminate the use of antibiotics.

    Genetics: Everyone has that friend who never gets sick. The same happens in the animal world. Some animals are just better at fighting disease on their own. Now, we have the ability to find those specific genes in animals and select for them. By breeding the healthiest females to the healthiest males, and eliminating the more sickly ones, fewer animals will get sick and fewer will need antibiotics.

    Biosecurity – health management: In a previous post about antibiotics, I jokingly mentioned that you can’t teach pigs to wash their hooves, but we can manage the humans and the equipment going in and out of farms to keep disease from spreading.

    In April, I went to two pig farms in one day, and I took four showers that day. On modern swine and sometimes poultry farms, humans are required to shower in and shower out. That means you take a shower, and only wear clothes that belong to the farm. Even underwear (TMI, sorry). Other precautions included washing the vehicles that we drove every time we entered a new farm, keeping wildlife away, and limiting visitors.

    Sanitation and reduced contamination will reduce the exposure of animals to bacteria that cause disease, and will reduce the need to treat those animals with antibiotics.

    Nutrition: Keeping animals well-fed and healthy will help their bodies naturally fight disease. Scientists are also learning how to create an environment in the animal that promotes health and fights bacteria without antibiotics.

    Gut health and the Microbiome: Last year I wrote a post about the human microbiome, but animals each have their own microbiome. Dr. Stephen Collett, from the University of Georgia, spoke at the conference and he said that when we choose animals for breeding, we are not only selecting their genetics, but also their microbiome. Mothers pass their healthy bacteria to their babies, and all animals share it in their barns, pens, and fields.

    The interactive effect of a healthy gut and nutrition is so important. Farmers are learning to feed the good bacteria to fight the bad ones. Dr. Collett said, “We can’t win the war on disease by killing, we have to win by multiplying. We have to nurture what we want.” Using nutrition to feed the healthy bacteria will lessen the need for antibiotics to fight the bad bacteria.

    The day after the conference, I watched a webinar by some animal scientists from Texas A&M. They spoke about bacteriophages, viruses that kill specific bacteria. They exist everywhere in nature. Some animals naturally carry them in their guts to help them fight bacteria that might make them sick. Obviously, bacteriophages are part of the microbiome. Scientists are learning more about them and how they can help fight bacteria every day. 

    Keep moving forward.

    Farmers and scientists are adapting every day to how we fight disease and pathogens in food animals. With every new break through, we have another tool in our toolbox to fight dangerous bacteria. One of the exciting things about working in the food industry is that it is constantly changing.

    There is no way our industry is ready to completely stop using antibiotics, but we are finding ways to use fewer antibiotics all the time. The whole industry will continue to keep moving forward to a new age of total animal health. 

    The founder and CEO of Alltech, Dr. Pearse Lyons, has a great quote that I think can be applied to the transition away from antibiotics, “Don’t get it right. Get it going.” Changing the tools we use to produce food for 9 billion people is not going to be easy, but we have to keep moving forward. Get it going.