As some of you may possibly be aware – maybe not - this issue has been of long standing and acute concern to quite a few people, including myself (in fact, it was one of the reasons I converted my farming operation to an organic – or agro-ecological – system over thirty years ago, and why, incidentally, we have been successfully using homeopathic – yes homeopathic - treatments for my cattle and sheep as part of a programme to reduce the use of antibiotics). So, I take great heart from the fact that Ministers, officials and scientists of such eminence and from so many countries are putting their collective minds to the development of a concerted course of action.
The Chief Medical Officer and her colleagues have, I know, worked exceptionally hard, both to draw the attention of Ministers and fellow professionals to the overuse and abuse of antibiotics – especially in the context of intensive, industrialized farming systems – and to engage the wider public in the nature and scale of the risks involved. For, ultimately, this is an agenda that affects us all, and the whole of any Government – not just those concerned with healthcare or agriculture. Indeed, while the concerns go far beyond economics, I think it instructive that the costs of failing to take effective action are estimated at tens of trillions of pounds by 2050. This simple, but compelling fact alone seems to me to underscore the need for urgent and coherent global action.
I have enormous sympathy for those engaged in the vital task of ensuring that as the world population continues to increase unsustainably, and travel becomes easier, antibiotics retain their ability to overcome disease. It must be incredibly frustrating to witness the fact that, as has been pointed out by many authorities, antibiotics have too often simply acted as a substitute for basic hygiene, or as it would seem, as a way of placating a patient who has a viral infection or who actually needs little more than patience to allow a minor bacterial infection to resolve itself.
The global nature of the antimicrobial resistance problem also raises another critical issue. Alarmingly, I am told that in too many parts of the world, it is an uphill struggle to implement effective regulation of antibiotics. This can be harmful for local populations which often do not have access to appropriate life-saving drugs and medical advice when they are needed, but who can often purchase and use a wide range of unregulated antibiotics for humans or animals, without even knowing if the drugs are appropriate for their condition. Such situations create the ideal environment for the development and spread of new forms of resistance. So, Ladies and Gentlemen, I sincerely hope that your deliberations will focus in part, at least, on how this situation can be improved.
And given the potentially disastrous scenario we face, I find it difficult to understand how we can continue to allow most of the antibiotics in farming, many of which are also used in human medicine, to be administered to healthy animals. This practice could, as some have pointed out, be described as a cheap form of insurance. Could we not devise more effective systems where we reserve antibiotics for treating animals where the use is fully justified by the seriousness of the illness? Would we, I wonder, advise adding antibiotics to our own food or water on a daily basis, just in case we became ill?
Now as someone with a particular interest in farming myself, and in my own very modest way, I have endeavoured to follow systems of animal husbandry and arable management which try wherever possible to go with the grain of Nature and thereby avoid dependency on antibiotics, on pesticides and other forms of chemical intervention. Over the years – in numerous speeches, I fear! – I have tried to draw attention to these issues by stressing, for instance, that “sustainable farming does not rely upon artificial fertilizers and growth-promoters, nor the prophylactic use of antibiotics. Sustainable farming is, instead, an approach where antibiotics are used on animals to treat illnesses, not deployed in blanket-like doses in a bid to prevent them.” And as I said to the B.M.A.'s Millennium Festival of Medicine back in 2000 –“The lesson here, I suspect, is that with each new advance, medicine and the society it aims to serve need to become constantly better at understanding fully, coming to terms with and managing any unforeseen consequences – before it is ever too late. But, as I said, that may be too tall an order…!”
All this, of course, is something I have been trying to encourage to take root as a more sustainable approach; one which firstly builds up the inherent health of our food production systems so we rely rather less on curative interventions such as antibiotics – the judicious use of which is so vital to continue to safeguard the health of future generations – and, secondly, which restores the health of our soil, and thus its greatly enhanced capacity to produce healthy food and to store carbon through the replenishment of soil organic matter.
Ladies and Gentlemen, you are engaged on an urgent and absolutely vital task and your deliberations today will affect the lives of hundreds of millions, if not billions, of people in the years to come. I pray, for everybody's sakes, that you are successful.