Antibiotics in farming is driving the resistance crisis

The overuse of antibiotics in farming is a major threat to human health, a UN report warns. 

Drug resistance is spreading from farms into surrounding areas, affecting medication used by humans and putting millions of lives at risk, it adds. 

Such resistance is making even the most powerful medication, known as ‘last-resort’ antibiotics, ineffective.

England’s chief medical officer, Dame Sally Davies, has already warned antibiotic resistance could make routine operations such as hip replacements life-threatening within a few years. 

In the US alone, at least two million people infected each year with bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics, of which 23,000 die from complications.  

The overuse of antibiotics in farming is a major threat to human health, a UN report warns


A 15-minute blood test could slash the number of unnecessary antibiotics given to patients by 80 per cent, research revealed last month.

Doctors in Liverpool, Derbyshire and the North East are already trialling the £12 finger-prick test, which tells a GP within a quarter of an hour whether a patient truly needs antibiotics for a chest complaint.

If rolled out nationally it could prove a badly-needed tool in the NHS battle against superbugs.

The test – which identifies whether a patient is suffering from a bacterial infection or a virus while they sit in the waiting room – changed a GP’s decision in 48 per cent of cases, a pilot study found.

It also cut the number of unnecessary prescriptions given for respiratory problems by 80 per cent, according to the trial at a GP practice in Dronfield, North Derbyshire.

How does farming spread antibiotic resistance? 

Antibiotics used on farms are typically given via animals’ food or water. 

If too much is given, this can spill over into surrounding fields and waterways.

Antibiotic resistance is also being spread where drugs are manufactured as factory discharges may be released into streams that feed larger rivers. 

In the city of Patancheru near Hyderabad in India, wastewater from 90 drug manufacturers contains enough of the antibiotic ciprofloxacin to treat 44,000 people.

Erik Solheim, the UN’s environment chief, said: ‘Around the world, discharge from municipal, agricultural and industrial waste in the environment means it is common to find antibiotic concentrations in many rivers, sediments and soils. It is steadily driving the evolution of resistant bacteria.’ 

‘Resistance is spread through our natural environments’ 

Scientists are calling on tougher regulations around drug manufacturing to prevent farm run-off, as well as avoiding the overprescription of antibiotics in animals, which are sometimes given to encourage weight gain rather than to treat illness.

The introduction of more biodegradable drugs would also mean such medications do not persist in the environment. 

Antibacterial ingredients in personal care and cleaning products should also be reduced around the world as this may drive resistance.

The WHO has already urged for last-resort antibiotics to only be used in humans and never in farming. 

Although unpopular with farmers who may need to cull ill livestock, the WHO believes this could make a significant difference to the antibiotic-resistance crisis. 

Efforts to curb the resistance crisis have so far focused on people, such as encouraging people not to seek antibiotics for minor illnesses.

Yet, farming may be a significant but overlooked factor behind the antibiotic-resistance crisis.

William Gaze, associate professor at the University of Exeter, who contributed to the report, added: ‘So far, a lot of attention has focused on reducing antibiotic use, and that is a key factor, but it’s equally important to understand more about how resistance is spread through our natural environments, so that we can find ways to prevent that happening,’ The Guardian reported.