Photograph by Maryn McKenna
Photograph by Maryn McKenna

Can Farms Reduce Antibiotic Use? Dutch Farms Did

Routine antibiotic use—giving meat animals small doses of antibiotics every day of their lives—is a cornerstone of modern livestock raising.

That has been true since the 1950s, the very beginning of the antibiotic era, and it’s only in the past decade that the practice has been seriously called into question as a matter of agricultural policy.

In the United States, the Food and Drug Administration struggled for decades to remove the smallest antibiotic doses—known as “growth promoters” because they cause animals to reach market weight faster—from meat production. It never succeeded. Last year, the agency took a different tack, creating voluntary restrictions whose primary impact is on veterinary-pharma manufacturers, but that nevertheless should reduce antibiotic use by farmers.

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Farmer Gerbert Oosterlaken in the Netherlands has been raising pigs with minimal antibiotic use.

In Europe, though, growth promoters have been banned since 2006, and several countries have instituted additional curbs on antibiotic use. One notable case is The Netherlands, whose government proposed in 2009 that farmers raising meat animals cut antibiotic use by half in three years. The Netherlands is Europe’s leading meat exporter, so it would have been reasonable to expect a revolt. Instead, its farmers did as the government asked. In fact, they did it a year early, hitting the 50 percent mark in two years instead of three.

How that happened—and why Dutch farmers were not only willing to go along with the proposal, but in some cases even eager—is the subject of a long story I’ve written for the fantastic food-and-farm magazine Modern Farmer, which was in the June issue and has just gone up on their website. (The story was supported by the nonprofit Food and Environment Reporting Network, FERN, whom I am always so happy to work with.)

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The Dutch government attitude is captured in remarks that Edith Ingeborg Schippers, the Dutch Minister of Health, Welfare and Sport, coincidentally made just two days ago at the start of a conference on antibiotic resistance being held in the Hague. She said:

It is my firm belief that we should ban the use of our last-resort antibiotics in animal husbandry all together. These precious medicines are our common heritage. We should treat them as such.

Now, I know that for a lot of countries agriculture is a major economic pillar. I know there is the fear of economic losses. I know from experience. You may not realize it, but the Netherlands, small as we are, is a world player in this field. We are the second largest exporter of agricultural products, next to the United States…

We were the number one of heavy users of antibiotics in Europe. We too made the mistake of using antibiotics rather than optimizing the living conditions of our livestock. Only in three years time we managed to change the course drastically. And: without ruining the sector! We are still the number two in agricultural export!

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As to what the farmers thought: I spent some time in the Netherlands last fall. To compensate for the loss of the antibiotics they used routinely—not just for growth promotion, but for prevention, to protect pigs from crowded farm conditions—farmers there have changed their raising standards: altering feed recipes, increasing barn temperatures, allowing their animals more space, keeping them with their mothers longer. That sounds expensive, and a rise in farming costs is something that American agriculture has always feared would happen if farm drugs were relinquished.

But Dutch farmers say their bottom line hasn’t altered. In some cases, they’re making more money. One of the farmers I met, Gerbert Oosterlaken, told me:

I am doing this for myself and for my pigs, because when they are healthy they are giving me profit. Sick pigs can’t give you any profit. You do it for yourself, for your children, and the next generation. But also to get more profit out of your farm.

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In the 5-minute video below, you’ll meet Oosterlaken and hear his philosophy. You’ll also get to see many of the 17,000 pigs—very cute, very healthy pigs—that he raises each year.

This is the second installment in my video project about agriculture, supported by the Knight Science Journalism Program at MIT. (The first ran last month.) There will be more as the year goes on. In fact, next week, in a bonus installment, I’ll introduce you to a Dutch farmer who finds the new antibiotics policy a little more problematic.

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