In his opening address at the Department of Agriculture’s conference on antimicrobial resistance (AMR) on Wednesday in Mullingar, Junior Minister for Agriculture, Andrew Doyle, said that the issue is going to be high on the agenda.

“I would predict that the next thing we will have to do as farmers is fill out an antibiotic navigator,” Doyle said.

"Increased awareness of the significance of AMR is to be welcomed," Doyle said. "However a consumer or processor driven blanket ban on the use of antibiotics in all circumstances would have serious implications for the control of animal disease and the protection of animal welfare. This is what can happen in a vacuum of understanding of what is a multi-factorial issue. However, there is a danger that this might become the norm unless action is taken quickly to minimise the use of antibiotics.

"It is therefore essential for you, as producers, to step up and take leadership so that we can demonstrate to all, be it stakeholders in this country, or stakeholders in our markets abroad, that we take the problem of AMR very seriously and that we are committed to taking the required action to help address it."

A global issue

The issue is, in fact, of global significance, with discussions taking place at international level. The UN General Assembly and the European Commission have both highlighted its significance, with the Commission publishing a roadmap for change last November. Other countries have published national plans of action, and as an agri-food exporting nation we are being asked to demonstrate our commitment to reducing the threat of AMR to human and animal health.

“It is increasingly becoming a topic in the sales process, it’s not just another requirement now but a genuine concern,” said Joe Ryan from Meat Industry Ireland (MII).

“As an exporting country, we must address the challenge and not fall behind our competitors. Sooner or later, customers are going to demand to see action.”

While there is a need for having a national, whole-economy approach in terms of agriculture, Ryan said it is about education, training and events.

“It is hard for us to set targets if we can’t measure our usage,” he said, calling for further research to be done in the area of antibiotic usage on farms.

But the chair of Animal Health Ireland, Mike Magan, said we can “have all the reports and forums we like, but we have to effect behavioural change”. Magan used the example of the BVD eradication programme in Ireland.

“Since the programme started, we have got the incidences of BVD in herds down to 2.62%, which has a direct impact on the use of antibiotics as it is a threshold disease for other issues,” he said. “BVD would have been totally eradicated by 2018, however we didn’t get rid of enough PIs, which is a microcosm of society today. I naively went around to events across the country to speak when the programme started, believing that farmers would dispose of PIs for the greater good.”

Emphasising the economic benefit of taking part in these programmes, through the reduction of medicinal use, is what effects change on the farm. He outlined the AHI cell check initiative as another method of reducing antibiotic use.

“The national somatic cell count average is now down to 191,000 and the number of herds with a cell count under 200,000 is rising, which just goes to show that when we work together we can do something meaningful,” Magan said.

The next step for AHI is to introduce a national Johne’s disease control programme, he added. As well as that, the organisation is working on interrogating kill-line data on parasites to develop a programme for the farmer that will feed back real-time data. After that, Magan said that we need to tackle IBR nationally.

“Our competitors are not standing still. We have the resources here to make a change in our antibiotic use, but we need to have the will to do it and that’s the biggest challenge.”

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