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Antibiotics have no place in organic farming, but gene editing does

Lord Rooker

May 2023

Science for Sustainable Agriculture

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Highlighting the potentially serious food safety risks associated with antibiotic use in organic farming, former UK Food Standards Agency chair and food safety minister Lord Rooker urges the organic sector to keep an open mind on the opportunities for new precision breeding technologies to help reduce the need for antimicrobial treatments by delivering genetic resistance to major disease challenges in farmed livestock.


The Veterinary Medicines Directorate recently reported that antibiotic use in food-producing animals on Britain’s farms is at a record low, having fallen by 55% since 2014. The UK now has one of the lowest levels of antibiotic use in Europe and, importantly, 'last-resort’ antibiotics essential for human health, known as highest priority critically important antibiotics or HP-CIAs, make up only 0.4% of total sales, down 83% since 2014.


This is very encouraging news. It reflects not only continuous improvements in on-farm husbandry and veterinary care, but also a more balanced approach to breeding for animals with greater resilience, robustness and resistance to disease. 


Access to new breeding technologies such as gene editing offers further scope for improvement in reducing both the incidence of disease and the use of antimicrobial treatments. As Professor Lord Trees, the only veterinarian in the House of Lords, has pointed out


“Disease is the single biggest welfare issue in rearing farm animals, and gene editing offers the potential to accelerate the development of disease resistant breeds which would in turn reduce drug and chemical use with positive effects for problems such as anti-microbial resistance and environmental pollution.”     


News of these continuing reductions in antibiotic use also put me in mind of a report brought to my attention last year, which I found rather surprising. Produced by the Alliance to Save Our Antibiotics in partnership with the Soil Association, it focused on the use of antibiotics in organic livestock farming, which was generally found to be four times lower than in non-organic production. 


There are several reasons why this raised an eyebrow, and one reason why it rings serious alarm bells. 


The first and most obvious is that the organic industry markets itself on being free from synthetic inputs. I suspect the majority of consumers would not expect antibiotics to be used at all in organic farming systems. 


On further investigation, it turns out that current UK rules allow certified organic producers to use antibiotics up to three times in any 12-month period and still market the resulting animal as ‘organic’. Perhaps counter-intuitively, this is in contrast to US organic rules which stipulate that no animals treated with antibiotics may be certified and marketed as organic.     


As the supermarkets continue their drive to reduce antibiotic use in conventional livestock production, how do they explain ‘organic antibiotics’?


Secondly, virtually all antibiotics are produced using the same genetic modification, RNAi and gene editing technologies vigorously campaigned against by the organic lobby. 


It is a clear case of ‘can’t have your cake and eat it’, just like the genetically engineered Covid vaccines. 


As MAFF Food Safety Minister in the late 1990s, I recall the former Prince (now King) Charles’ urgent warning in 1998 that GM was tinkering with ‘realms that belong to God and God alone.’ 


It was part of an unscientific campaign which helped set the cause of genetic science in agriculture back by at least 20 years. It had the effect, as I have seen for myself, of emptying UK labs of scientists, many of whom went abroad to continue their work.    


Having received his Covid jabs and even championed the contribution of the vaccine’s developers, does HRH and other anti-technology evangelists have no sense of the irony or ignorance at play here?     


Thirdly, it turns out that the levels of antibiotic use in organic systems are even higher in some cases than used by non-organic farmers. Farmers Guardian, for example, reported the comments of Yorkshire dairy farmer Paul Tompkins, who observed that “data from Alliance to Save Our Antibiotics shows that organic farms certified by the Soil Association have three times more antibiotic use than I do conventionally.”    


But there is a further, much more serious concern about the routine use of antibiotics by organic livestock farmers, and it relates to food safety and human health.  


It is well-documented that organic farmers’ reliance on animal faeces as a fertiliser gives rise to an increased risk of food-borne pathogens. Making those food-borne pathogens resistant to antibiotics could be a potential killer. 


I was Chair of the Food Standards Agency in 2011 at the time of a lethal food poisoning incident in Germany in which 53 people died and around 4,000 fell ill after consuming organic beansprouts contaminated with an extremely virulent, antibiotic-resistant strain of E-coli. 


This prompted serious questions and discussion about the potential food safety risks associated with organic production. Paul Hunter, a professor of public health at the University of East Anglia told Reuters: “Bean sprouts are …… very difficult to grow hygienically and you have to be careful not to contaminate them. And organic farms, with all that they entail in terms of not using ordinary chemicals and non-organic fertilisers, carry an extra risk.”     


That’s why the Soil Association report rings alarm bells for me. 


Antibiotics have no place in organic production precisely because of the system’s reliance on animal faeces as a fertiliser and the increased risk of food-borne contamination.       


It is also why the organic industry must drop its absurd opposition to genetic improvement techniques such as gene editing, which offer huge potential to improve livestock health and welfare, and to reduce the need for routine antibiotic use. 


UK livestock scientists are leading a number of globally significant research projects using these technologies, including the development of genetic resistance to avian influenza in chickens and to Porcine Reproductive and Respiratory Syndrome (PRRS) in pigs. 


And yet as Britain has faced its worst ever bird flu outbreak after the disease over-summered last year here for the first time, the organic campaigner Patrick Holden, former director of the Soil Association, recently reiterated his outright opposition to the use of gene editing to tackle bird flu in poultry, instead citing Sir Albert Howard’s philosophy of disease, dating back to 1940, that we should come to regard pests, parasites and diseases as “nature’s professors of good husbandry, because they reveal to us the deficiencies in our management.” 


The idea that farmers should simply shrug their shoulders if crops or livestock are decimated by pest or disease infestation is sheer lunacy, and if widely adopted today would lead to mass starvation in the human population. Indeed, such denial of the benefits of scientific – and particularly genetic – innovation suggests a chillingly inhumane outlook. 


Gene editing techniques will enable scientists to introduce valuable genetic characteristics into farmed animals more quickly and more precisely than using standard animal breeding genetics, accelerating the introduction of important genetic improvements that support improved animal health and welfare, including reduced use of antimicrobials and antibiotics.  


These technologies have as much, if not more, to offer organic producers. Like others before me, I would therefore urge the organic industry to keep an open mind on the potential of these precision breeding techniques to support more sustainable, high-welfare livestock production in the future. 


Lord (Jeff) Rooker is a British politician who served as Labour MP for Birmingham Perry Barr from 1974 until 2001, joining the government in 1997 as Minister of State at the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. He was appointed to the House of Lords in 2001 where he continued to serve in the government under several ministerial portfolios until 2008, including as Deputy Leader of the House of Lords and Minister of State for Sustainable Food, Farming and Animal Health from 2005 to 2008. He was chair of the Food Standards Agency from 2009 to 2013. He is a member of the Science for Sustainable Agriculture Advisory Group.  

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