Switching to less intensive farming methods with less use of antibiotics is essential to prevent the dangers to public health caused by growing bacteria resistance There’s a time bomb ticking away in our food chain. The overuse of antibiotics in the intensive rearing of pigs and poultry is drastically compromising their efficacy in treating humans. 

The modern habit of keeping large concentrations of animals in unnatural circumstances encourages the spread of pathogens and viruses. Don’t fall for assurances about ‘biosecurity’ – disease can sweep round a broiler house or pigshed like head lice through a nursery. 

Since the Second World War, instead of employing time-honoured extensive animal husbandry methods, farmers have got lazy and relied on pharmaceutical drugs to keep a lid on disease levels, and they show no signs of weaning themselves from this dependency. The latest government figures show another big jump in the farmyard use of two of the most important classes of antibiotics in human medicine –  fluoroquinolones and cephalosporins – which were up by 20% and 10% respectively. With rising antibiotic resistance in human and veterinary medicine, and very few new antibiotics coming on to the market, these are two of the most effective classes of antibiotics remaining for treating life-threatening infections, such as meningitis in children, campylobacter and salmonella.

That’s why the WHO classifies them as “critically important antibiotics for human medicine”. The European Medicines Agency has also warned of resistant bacteria spreading from animals to humans and called for these antibiotics to be used more prudently. The Soil Association, which has campaigned ceaselessly on this issue, estimates that a move to less intensive, more health-oriented livestock farming, could reduce farm antibiotic use by up to 75%.  Its research shows that through ignorance of the long-term consequences, many vets and farmers are still choosing these vital drugs, when for most conditions there are equally effective alternatives.

So much of the opposition to factory farming comes from altruistic concerns about animal welfare, but there’s a selfish motivation, too. It’s in all our interests to push for a radical shift back to predominantly outdoor rearing methods. This would leave our livestock less disease-prone and allow us to make a long overdue, sensible reduction in routine prophylactic antibiotic use. Such a move, and this is no exaggeration, could save lives.n Joanna Blythman is a food journalist and author of Bad Food Britain