Cutting Farm Antibiotic Use, Even When It’s Difficult

Last week, I introduced you to the Dutch hog farmer Gerbert Oosterlaken, who welcomes the new rules that the Netherlands has placed on the use of agricultural antibiotics. This week, as a holiday bonus, meet another Dutch farmer who doesn’t rejoice in the new restrictions quite so much, though he does follow them.

A bit of background (and all of this is in my long story for Modern Farmer, “The Abstinence Method,” which was also supported by the Food and Environment Reporting Network): The Dutch restrictions on farm antibiotics have several new standards buried within them. One is that, unlike the United States, farmers are not allowed to buy antibiotics over the counter, in a farm store or from a feed mill. Instead, they must seek the assistance of a veterinarian, who writes a prescription that is reported to the national authorities. Plus, all of the drugs approved for use on farms are subdivided into categories—essentially, green, yellow and red.

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In order to treat sick animals on a farm, which is the only use for which antibiotics are now permitted, the process goes like this. Farmers can use the green class—old drugs that don’t stimulate new, dangerous types of antibiotic resistance— based on their own judgment, but they are only allowed to keep on the farm enough to treat 15 percent of their herd one time. After that, they have to call the veterinarian to order more. And they can only call one veterinarian; to prevent “doctor shopping,” relationships between farms and their vets are codified in contracts, and the contracts are registered.

To use the yellow class of drugs, which do stimulate dangerous resistance patterns, the farm’s veterinarian must be consulted before any drugs are given. To use the red class, which are functionally identical to valuable drugs in human medicine, the veterinarian has to order a particular test demonstrating that the first two classes of drugs won’t have any effect on the infection that the farm is experiencing.

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All of that takes time; and some farmers worry that it also undermines their authority, leaving them feeling as though their decades of experience count for nothing.

Now that you have all that background, meet Egbert Wingens. He and his brother Rob raise meat chickens on a large farm (250,000 birds at a time) in the southeastern part of the Netherlands. He told me: “When a bird is sick you have to give them antibiotics… With the experience we have, we know which [drug] is the best. Sometimes we need the third one, but we cannot use the third one because we have to start with the first and then the second one. If it doesn’t work, we have a lot of sick chicks, and that’s a problem.”

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This is the third installment in my video project about agriculture, supported by the Knight Science Journalism Program at MIT. (The second ran last week, and the first in May.) There will be more as the year goes on.

This story is part of National Geographic’s special eight-month Future of Food series.