Antimicrobial Resistance: Farm Animals

– in Westminster Hall at 4:30 pm on 18th January 2023.

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Photo of Virendra Sharma Virendra Sharma Labour, Ealing, Southall 4:30 pm, 18th January 2023

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered the use of antibiotics on healthy farm animals and antimicrobial resistance.

It is a great honour and pleasure to be here this afternoon and to see you in the Chair, Mr Bone.

Antimicrobial resistance, or AMR as it is more commonly known, should be of grave concern to us all because it affects every single one of our constituents up and down the country. As we emerge from the shadow of the covid-19 pandemic, this looming health catastrophe must be treated with greater urgency. We are on the edge of yet another global human health crisis, described by the United Nations Environment Programme as a “silent pandemic”, except we will be able to vaccine our way out of this one. Worldwide, more than a million people a year are already dying from infections that cannot be treated with antibiotics. Our food system is broken, and this is the hidden public health cost of intensive factory farming.

Photo of Margaret Ferrier Margaret Ferrier Independent, Rutherglen and Hamilton West

I congratulate the hon. Member on securing the debate. The use of antibiotics in factory-farmed animals as a method of disease prevention to compensate for poor living conditions is a huge contributing factor to widespread antimicrobial resistance. The EU introduced legislation to tackle this. Does the hon. Member agree that Ministers must urgently act on their 2018 commitment to restrict preventive antibiotic use?

Photo of Virendra Sharma Virendra Sharma Labour, Ealing, Southall

I thank the hon. Member for her positive intervention. I am sure the Minister will note it, and I will also be raising that issue later in my speech.

One of the root causes of AMR is the overuse of antibiotics on cruel factory farms. Factory farming inflicts unspeakable cruelty on billions of animals in the UK every year. It confines them to horrendous conditions often with barely enough room to turn around or lie down. This highly stressful and often barren environment can lead to injuries and severe behavioural issues, including aggression, tail biting in pigs, feather pecking and even cannibalism. The cruelty does not end there. Factory farming subjects animals to painful mutilations, such as tail docking and teeth clipping, without effective pain relief. This is not farming; it is industrialised animal cruelty. Colleagues will not be surprised to hear that these stressful, cramped and unsanitary conditions create the perfect breeding ground for disease. That brings me to my next point: the overuse of antibiotics.

Photo of Mark Spencer Mark Spencer The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I hesitate to interrupt the hon. Gentleman’s flow, because I will obviously get my say in a moment. I am sure that he does not want to slander a whole industry of farmers who take animal welfare very seriously. These are people who get out of bed very early in the morning to look after and care for their animals on a daily basis. People cannot do that unless they love and respect animals. I know that he does not mean to slander a whole industry, but I thought he might want to take a moment to reflect on some of his language and acknowledge that there are farmers up and down this country who care deeply for the welfare of their animals and who look after them in a special way.

Photo of Peter Bone Peter Bone Conservative, Wellingborough

I would like to point out that you can have a go back at the Minister when it is his turn.

Photo of Virendra Sharma Virendra Sharma Labour, Ealing, Southall

I am glad that the Minister found it necessary to intervene at this stage. I am not offended in any way, shape or form, but these are not just my views, but those of campaigners and experts in the field who have witnessed it and done the reports. We differ at this stage, but later in my speech he might change his mind and come back on a more positive note.

Antibiotics are routinely given to healthy farm animals to compensate for the cruel and frankly inhumane conditions they are kept in to prevent those animals from becoming sick. Antibiotics are being used to prop up this cruel system of suffering. Without antibiotics, these animals would simply not be able to survive these appalling conditions.

An estimated 75% of antibiotics used on UK farms are for group treatments. When used routinely, they are intended to compensate for poor hygiene and inadequate animal husbandry, and that happens despite the industry’s reduction of antibiotics used by 50% in recent years. Pigs, cows, chickens and dairy cows on factory farms are given antibiotics through their food and water on a regular basis. I ask colleagues this: if we will not take antibiotics when we are not sick, why would we administer them to healthy animals?

The problem is not confined to animal health. Right now we are seeing a rise in antibiotic resistance in animals, which is contributing to antibiotic resistance in humans. Last November I was delighted to host a reception on behalf of World Animal Protection and the Alliance to Save Our Antibiotics for the launch of their report, “Life-threatening superbugs: how factory farm pollution risks human health.” The study—the first of its kind in the UK—tested waterways and slurry run-off in areas of the Wye Valley, Suffolk and Norfolk near to both factory farms and higher-welfare outdoor farms for antibiotic residues and antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Antimicrobial resistance was found in rivers and waterways in areas with high levels of factory farming. Add to that the alarming news that livestock farms in England polluted rivers 300 times last year and the urgency becomes clear.

The key findings showed that resistance was found in these waterways to the antibiotic cefotaxime, which is used to treat sepsis and meningitis, and vancomycin—I am sure that the Minister will agree I am not a scientist, nor in the medical profession, so my pronunciation may be different but the meaning is right—which is used to treat MRSA. It is alarming that both are classified by the World Health Organisation as the highest priority, critically important antimicrobials in human medicine yet far too little is being done to halt resistance to this AMR in our environment.

None of the areas near the four higher-welfare outdoor pig or chicken farms tested had higher levels of any type of resistance downstream than was found upstream, which means that no evidence was found that the higher-welfare farms are contributing AMR to superbugs in the environment. On the other hand, five of the eight intensive farms had more of at least one type of resistance downstream than upstream. The link between the overuse of antibiotics on cruel factory farms, river pollution, AMR and the threat to human health should be a warning to us all. We must follow the signs before we sleepwalk into another health emergency.

In 2022 World Animal Protection also conducted research into the presence of antimicrobial resistant enterococci in fresh pork samples sold in UK supermarkets. Now, that is a scary thought: AMR readily available on the shelves. The study looked at the prevalence of antimicrobial resistance depending on pork production method, including UK minimum legal standard farming, higher-welfare indoor farming and high-welfare outdoor organic farming. When the bacteria were found, they were then tested for susceptibility to different antibiotics—in other words, whether antibiotics were effective in killing them or slowing their growth. The result of the study indicated a potential trend: a higher AMR burden with more intensive production methods, and a lower AMR burden with higher-welfare production methods. That demonstrates a worrying link between the overuse of antibiotics on low-welfare factory farms, the food that we are consuming and the AMR to which we are exposed.

It is true that the UK has made progress in reducing its farm antibiotic use by 55% since 2014; that was prompted primarily by the threat of stricter EU regulations. However, reductions have stagnated since 2018, and much greater reductions are still achievable and desperately needed to safeguard human health. The remaining antibiotics still used on farms are predominantly routine group treatments that prop up poor welfare practices such as overcrowding, routine mutilations and early weaning. Before the EU brought in a ban, an estimated 75% of antibiotics used on UK farms were administered to groups of animals through feed or water, rather than by targeting individual animals displaying signs of illness. If we compare that with just 10% used for group treatments in Sweden and 20% in Norway, we quickly see that we have lost our position as world leader on this issue.

Industry-led measures have made a start in reducing antibiotic use on farms, but they have fundamentally failed to establish responsible and safe antibiotic use levels and how to achieve them. They have set out targets for what could be achieved without substantially raising welfare standards or changing farming methods. Now, we must push beyond this and raise welfare standards in order to create a truly sustainable food system.

Our European neighbours have already acted to curb this health risk fuelled by inhumane farming. In January 2022, the EU introduced new laws banning all forms of routine antibiotic use in farming and all preventive antibiotic treatments of groups of animals. Furthermore, EU legislation states that antibiotics can no longer be used to compensate for poor hygiene, inadequate husbandry or lack of care, or to compensate for poor farm management. The UK was a member of the EU when that legislation was agreed, and it is only right that it should be adopted into UK law. We should also consider the future ramifications for our trade with the EU should we not introduce the legislation as it continues to sail past us in reducing unnecessary antibiotic use.

I come now to the central question of this debate: when do the Government intend to introduce a ban on the routine use of antibiotics in healthy farm animals? In 2018, the then Secretary of State, George Eustice, stated that the UK Government planned to implement restrictions on the preventive use of antibiotics in line with the EU’s proposals. That was over four years ago, and the practice has now been illegal in the EU for just under a year. In 2019, the Conservative party’s manifesto committed to solving antibiotic resistance. However, there has still been no action.

The promised public consultation on new UK veterinary medicines regulation has been repeatedly delayed, and no new restrictions on preventive antibiotics use have been introduced. If no action is taken, it is estimated that more deaths will be attributed to AMR by 2050 than current deaths from cancer. That will be the true cost to human life. The health and wellbeing of animals, people and our planet are deeply connected. The United Nations recognises that antibiotics are used to mask poor conditions for farm animals and calls for investment in sustainable agricultural food systems. Farm animals kept in conditions where they can lead good lives do not need to be routinely given antibiotics. I ask the Minister today whether this Government will commit to a ban on the overuse of antibiotics.

Photo of Steven Bonnar Steven Bonnar Shadow SNP Spokesperson (DEFRA Team Member) 4:45 pm, 18th January 2023

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Bone. I thank Mr Sharma for securing this important debate and for laying out the situation. In the light of the pandemic, the protection of both people and animals is more important than ever, and yet serious risks are being posed by the use of antimicrobial agents leading to antibiotic resistance. The World Health Organisation described it as a serious threat that is no longer merely a prediction for the future; it is happening right now in every part of the world. That highlights the urgent nature of this matter.

In Scotland, biosecurity practices are routinely adopted as part of farm management strategies to help reduce the burden of endemic disease in Scottish livestock. Biosecurity measures are a large part of any herd or flock health plan. Responsible use of antibiotics, only when necessary, will help to reduce the spread of antibiotic resistance A co-ordinated cross-sectoral response is required to address the threat from antimicrobial resistance. The Scottish Government continue to work in co-operation with DEFRA and the UK Government across such areas, ensuring agriculture regulations within a reserved context retain the high standards we are all accustomed to.

Photo of Margaret Ferrier Margaret Ferrier Independent, Rutherglen and Hamilton West

Antibiotic-resistant germs can end up in the food that humans eat and lead to illnesses such as food poisoning. That illustrates the importance of food standards, which are high in the UK. Does the hon. Member agree that the regulations that follow today’s Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill must be airtight to prevent a reduction in standards?

Photo of Steven Bonnar Steven Bonnar Shadow SNP Spokesperson (DEFRA Team Member)

My hon. Friend makes some excellent point, and I am sure the Minister will be listening. She always speaks with authority on such matters.

Scotland’s food and drink sector continues to be successful, as we collectively follow the science in determining what is best for animals and, of course, safe for human consumption. Scotland and the rest of the UK’s agriculture sector has some of the very highest standards in the world, and we are rightly proud of them. However, these gains are being sacrificed in trade deals with countries with lower standards and requirements. Total farm antibiotic use is five times higher in the United States and Canada than here, 16 times higher in Australian poultry, and triple in Australian pigs what the UK would allow.

The UK falls behind the EU, as the hon. Member for Ealing, Southall, mentioned earlier, in vital areas. Regulations covering antibiotic use on farm animals were tightened across the European Union in February 2022, but due to Brexit and the UK Government’s intention to deregulate—my hon. Friend the Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West mentioned the Bill before the House today—the UK has not followed suit. UK Ministers have also previously refused to commit to an outright ban on preventive use.

In response to a request for comment, a spokesperson for the Government’s Veterinary Medicines Directorate said it would set out proposed regulatory changes as part of a public consultation during 2022, but they have not to this day responded to queries about whether the directorate would propose a ban. It remains legal in the UK to give antibiotics to farm animals routinely, rather than when they are sick or have an infection, and also to import animal foods produced with antibiotic growth promoters. The then Scottish Trade Minister, Ivan McKee MSP, called on the UK Government to seek action on AMR in all future trade agreements after the UK failed to do so when it struck its trade deal with Japan. The EU has also required similar acknowledgement as part of previous trade deals; it was successful in getting Australia to acknowledge the risk of AMR.

It is vital that the UK Government tackle antimicrobial resistance not only domestically but internationally through diplomacy and trade negotiations. If Scotland can take such action to protect our own farm animals through our very limited powers, then why can the UK Government not do so with the powers that they have? If they cannot, then why not provide the people of Scotland with the full authority to manage all our affairs?

Photo of Daniel Zeichner Daniel Zeichner Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 4:50 pm, 18th January 2023

It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Mr Bone. I congratulate my hon. Friend Mr Sharma on securing the debate and on his comprehensive introduction. No one wants antibiotics to be used when they are not necessary, whether in animals or humans, and he made his case powerfully.

As I represent Cambridge, it is not surprising that I have been briefed on a number of occasions by clinicians and scientists about the risks of antimicrobial resistance. The issue was brought to my attention soon after I was elected in 2015, long before I took on responsibilities relating to farmed animal health, so I have taken a close interest. I am grateful for excellent briefings from a wide range of organisations, including the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology, the Alliance to Save Our Antibiotics, the British Veterinary Association, the National Farmers Union, the National Office of Animal Health, MSD Animal Health, World Animal Protection and Compassion in World Farming, among others. There is considerable interest and expertise.

There is no doubt about it: antimicrobial resistance is a challenge that affects the whole world, with—as we have heard—an estimated 4.95 million people losing their lives because of an antibiotic-resistant infection in 2019. According to research published in The Lancet last November, 1.27 million of those deaths were attributed to the antibiotic resistance of the infection. I suspect that many of us are familiar with the 2014 review, chaired by Jim O’Neill, which warned that annual deaths due to antimicrobial resistance could rise to 10 million by 2050.

Consequently, it comes as no surprise that the World Health Organisation deems antibiotic resistance to be one of the biggest threats to global health, food security and development. I do not think anyone is under any illusion about the scale of the problem that we face, its risk to human health and how important it is that we reduce our use of antibiotics. In recent years, we have rightly seen considerable efforts made to reduce the use of unnecessary antibiotics in both humans and animals.

Since 2014, annual sales of veterinary antibiotics in the UK have reduced by 55%, with the Responsible Use of Medicines in Agriculture Alliance—RUMA—playing an important role. That achievement was commended by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation in a report published last year, which said:

The United Kingdom’s example demonstrates that building trusted relationships across all stakeholders, including between farmers, vets, and government, can lead to sustained behaviour change, and embed practices of responsible use across farming sectors. Industry leadership on the issue has empowered producers to take action. Farmers now have open conversations with their peers on the importance of addressing AMR, and the steps which can be taken in their respective areas.”

That reference to industry leadership and building relationships across all stakeholders is critical, as it is for so many areas in the food and farming sectors. There are many tensions within our food system today, some of which are understandably a result of the need to maximise output to feed a growing global population.

As we have rightly better understood the consequences, we are now trying to find a balance between that output and the environmental, health and animal welfare issues that are so important. Although progress has been made, we still face major challenges. For example, the Alliance to Save Our Antibiotics advises that 75% of antibiotics used in UK farms are for group treatments, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Southall pointed out. That stands in contrast to other countries that manage to use antibiotics only to treat individual sick animals. Sweden and Finland are cited as examples. Although exact comparisons are difficult, we should always aspire to the highest standards here. We also heard in the introduction that some farms still use antibiotics in a routine way when others do not. The fear is that in some cases that is compensating for poor husbandry. Again, we should aim higher.

Let me ask the Minister about the Government’s antimicrobial resistance national action plan in which it was stated, as we have already heard, that the UK would implement legislation along lines similar to those being adopted by the European Union. Is that still the plan? If so, when? Why are we yet again falling behind the EU? This is the second time in this Chamber today that the Minister will have to explain why the Government have relegated the UK to the slow lane. What assessment has been made of the consequences for British farmers who export to the EU? What can the Minister tell us about ensuring in trade deals that we do not risk importing food produced to lower standards on antibiotic usage?

A key to reducing the use of antibiotics is, of course, vaccination. I am grateful to the National Office of Animal Health, which issued livestock vaccination guidelines last May to help vets and farmers to improve resilience, for its advice. Will the Minister tell us what support the Department is giving to vaccine development?

In conclusion, this is a short debate on a subject that merits much more detailed discussion. Overuse of antibiotics in general, and certainly in farming in the past, has clearly put us at risk from rising antimicrobial resistance. The falling use of antibiotics indicates that we are moving in the right direction, but there is more to do. As we transform and improve our farming systems to address wider environmental and health challenges, I am in no doubt that moving away from antibiotic use will play a key role in improving and safeguarding our health as well as the health of animals stewarded by farmers and vets.

Photo of Mark Spencer Mark Spencer The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 4:56 pm, 18th January 2023

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. I pay tribute to Mr Sharma and congratulate him on calling the debate.

The Government recognise antimicrobial resistance or AMR as a policy issue of huge importance and public interest. It is right and proper that there is scrutiny of the matters we have discussed today. Antimicrobial resistance is one of the greatest public health threats that we face. A landmark study published last year, the Global Research of Antimicrobial Resistance report, reported that more than 1 million human deaths worldwide could be directly attributed to antibiotic resistance in 2019. That was the lower estimate. The report indicated that the figure could be as high as 5 million deaths globally, as the hon. Member for Ealing, Southall indicated in his speech.

Antibiotics are the cornerstone of human medicine. Without them, things we take for granted, such as routine surgery, would become life-threatening. Bacteria cause disease in animals, too, and veterinary medicine, like human medicine, needs to be able to rely on access to antibiotics that work. Not only do animal health and welfare depend on it, so in turn do the food systems that we depend on. It is vital that we protect those medicines for future generations.

To start, I would like to talk about how the Government are tackling antimicrobial resistance and what the UK strategy is. We know that AMR will not be an easy problem to overcome. In 2019, we put in place long-term plans to address AMR and published our UK 20-year vision to contain and control AMR by 2040. That strategic vision is supported by our current five-year national action plan for AMR, which runs from 2019 to 2024. That plan is progressing well, and I will come shortly to some of its highlights.

Meanwhile, we are already developing the next five-year national action plan. Both the vision and the national action plan were developed across Government Departments and their agencies along with the Administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, supported by a range of stakeholders. Our 20-year vision lays out the UK’s ambitions to create a world where AMR is contained, controlled and mitigated. In it, we have outlined our ambitions for lowering the burden of infections, our plans to optimise the use of antimicrobials across all sectors, and our aims to support the development of new therapies, diagnostics, vaccines and interventions.

We are taking a local, national and global approach. We are tackling AMR in people, animals, food and the environment, which is the One Health approach. The UK’s five-year national action plan takes those ambitions and breaks them down into actions for the UK over the short term. One key ambition of the national action plan is to reduce the use of antibiotics in the UK farming sector.

Let us talk about reducing use in animals. In the UK, the livestock industry is responsible for the health and welfare of more than 1 billion farmed animals in its care each year and for the production of safe, high-quality food. Across the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, we have been working collaboratively for many years with the veterinary and livestock sectors to promote responsible antibiotic use. UK agriculture has undergone a transformation over the last few years, as livestock sectors have embedded the principles of responsible antimicrobial use in their farming practices. That transformation has led to a clear understanding from all stakeholders of the importance of preserving antimicrobial efficiency and the responsibility that we all have to protect those essential medicines.

Due to the strong working relationship that we have with our vets and farmers, the UK has taken a different approach to other countries in reducing the use of antibiotics in animals, one that has been praised globally. We have engaged with the different sectors and collectively driven a culture change of responsible antibiotic use within food-producing animals. That has led to a 55% decrease in use since 2014, making the UK one of the lowest users of veterinary antibiotics across Europe. In particular, RUMA is establishing and chairing a targets taskforce for vets and farmers. It was pivotal in the industry taking ownership and driving forward that change.

Those industries have worked to protect antibiotics that are important for human use, reducing the use of those critical medicines in animals by 83% since 2014. Of course, the purpose of reducing antibiotic use is to reduce bacterial resistance to antibiotics. At the same time as reducing use, we have been monitoring antibiotic-resistant trends in bacteria in healthy livestock since 2015.

Photo of Kerry McCarthy Kerry McCarthy Shadow Minister (Climate Change and Net Zero)

This is an issue that I have followed for quite some time, and I would like to pin the Minister down on it. Does he think that there is a problem with the routine overuse of antibiotics in farming? Does he think that current levels need to come down significantly, and does he think that it is in any way connected with industrialised factory farming?

Photo of Mark Spencer Mark Spencer The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

We should be absolutely clear that the reduction in antibiotic use has been demonstrated. There has been huge engagement with the sector.

Photo of Mark Spencer Mark Spencer The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Of course, we could always reduce it further. But at the same time, we have to balance that with animal welfare and ensuring that no animal is affected detrimentally. No farmer in this country can administer antibiotics to an animal without a veterinary prescription. It requires a professional vet to prescribe that medicine for an animal. I have huge confidence in our veterinary service, and their professionalism and ability to make those decisions.

Photo of Daniel Zeichner Daniel Zeichner Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I think the Minister will agree that I have been uncharacteristically generous to him this afternoon. Let me press him on the point of group usage. Is that something that he thinks we should continue, or are there plans to change that?

Photo of Mark Spencer Mark Spencer The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I do not like blanket, overarching rules. There may well be a circumstance where a flock of birds or a group of animals are suffering from an infection and need to be treated. To rule out the use of group therapy when there is a group of animals that need veterinary intervention would be very silly. Of course, we want to ensure we target medicines at poorly animals, and that we use antibiotics to treat those animals. But to have a block rule where we rule out the use of a medicine to a group of animals that are suffering from an infection would be silly.

Photo of Kerry McCarthy Kerry McCarthy Shadow Minister (Climate Change and Net Zero)

The Minister seems to be saying that vets issue prescriptions only when there is a proven need to deal with an infection or disease outbreak. However, we know prescriptions have been issued to prevent disease outbreaks. Does he not think that is a problem? It goes back to the issue of routine use as a preventative measure rather than to treat disease. The Minister seems to be saying that prescriptions are not issued for that purpose, but I am pretty sure that they are.

Photo of Mark Spencer Mark Spencer The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I did not say that. To be clear, what I said was that I trust the professional reputation and professionalism of our veterinary services, and that where a veterinary officer is concerned that an animal may well become infected in the near future, it seems reasonable that they could come to a professional decision that that animal is better off receiving preventative medicine to stop it becoming infected and to keep it healthy. We rely on the professionalism of our veterinary service, which is one of the best in the world.

The UK’s success to date has been achieved without specific legislation. However, we are in the process of updating our laws regulating veterinary medicines and that gives us an opportunity to embed into law some of the excellent core principles of antimicrobial stewardship, which vets and famers are already promoting through a culture of responsible use.

To support the progress made in recent years and to lay the foundation for ongoing reductions in the unnecessary use of antibiotics in animals, we are seeking to strengthen our national law in this area. We will soon be publishing a consultation on the Veterinary Medicines Directorate’s proposed changes to the Veterinary Medicines Regulations 2013. The consultation will include proposals to stop the use of antibiotics to prevent disease in animals in all but exceptional cases, where the risks to animal health are high and the consequences likely to be severe, which was the point I made to Kerry McCarthy.

Our proposals bear similarities to recently updated EU legislation on veterinary medicines. However, our proposals also take into consideration the fact that we use significantly lower levels of antibiotics than most other European countries. We have already developed a culture of responsible use across the veterinary and livestock sectors. We will keep working with the farming sector to prevent animal diseases through vaccination, biosecurity and good husbandry, and through that we will further reduce unnecessary antibiotic use and underpin the availability of safe and sustainable food.

It is worth putting on record that when we compare ourselves with our European colleagues, we have a much lower use of antibiotics. We have lower use than France, Belgium, Germany, Spain, Romania, Croatia, Greece, Malta, Bulgaria, Portugal—I can keep going with a whole list of countries where we are performing better than our European colleagues—but that does not mean that we cannot continue to push in the right direction.

AMR is not just a UK issue, but a global problem. The UK is a strong voice on the international stage as an engaged global partner on AMR. We have led the way for many years. In 2016, the global-facing independent AMR review, chaired by Lord O’Neill, catalysed a wave of political and public momentum to address the issue.

Recently, in 2021, under the UK’s G7 presidency, we made commitments to better understand supply chains and improve resilience, investigate market incentives and novel valuation strategies for antimicrobials, and adopt standards for manufacturing of antimicrobials to reduce environmental pollution. The UK played a significant role in updating the international guidance to the Codex standards on AMR. Those standards ensure that food is safely traded across the world. We must tackle the threat head-on and galvanise countries across the globe to do the same. AMR is not only has a monumental health impact, but harms our economies and global security.

To conclude, the human population is predicted to reach 9.8 billion by 2050 and livestock products play an important role in feeding the world’s population. The goal must be to produce food in the most sustainable way, minimising environmental impacts while respecting animal welfare. Food systems will need to adapt and take account of the need to reduce disease pressures and the need for antibiotics. Preventing animal disease through vaccination, improved biosecurity and good husbandry will increase the availability of safe and sustainable food.

The UK’s sectoral approach successfully harnessed the power of the livestock industry to set its own targets and address the challenge of the food system as a whole. Producers’ deeper understanding of their own sectors will enable them to plan more effectively for the future and consider how they can produce food in the most sustainable way.

In the UK, we have shown that by having shared Government and industry goals we reduce the use of antibiotics. Real, sustainable change can be delivered and I am confident that our new legislation will further empower farmers and vets to continue to work together.

Photo of Virendra Sharma Virendra Sharma Labour, Ealing, Southall

I am sorry to interrupt the Minister, but I was looking at the time and thought that he was going to sum up. Before he does, I just wondered whether he could confirm, in clear words, that the Government will follow through on a ban on the overuse of antibiotics and ensure that there is no future for factory farming? Will he give the Government’s exact position?

Photo of Mark Spencer Mark Spencer The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. As I set out, we are about to consult on these matters. We have made huge progress in the right direction.

I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman deliberately tried to trigger me with his use of the term “factory farming”, so I hesitate to push back too robustly. However, I will say to him that farmers up and down this country genuinely love the animals that they care for. The level of animal welfare in this country is equal to that in any country in the world. I think UK farmers will take offence at some of the phrases that he has used today. Maybe that highlights that as an industry and as a sector we have not been as good at connecting with our consumers as we should have been, so there are many consumers out there who are not aware of the work that takes place on UK farms and the high welfare standards that exist on them.

As a DEFRA Minister, I am enormously proud of the work that the sector does up and down this country in looking after the welfare of its animals and making sure they are cared for, well fed and the healthiest they can be. The UK Government will be there with them and working with them on this journey, alongside vets, farmers and consumers, to make sure that we tackle the challenges that we face.

Photo of Virendra Sharma Virendra Sharma Labour, Ealing, Southall 5:12 pm, 18th January 2023

Thank you, Mr Bone, for letting me have a few more minutes in which to speak.

Before I say thank you and sum up, I assure the Minister that we have no intention of criticising the majority of the farmers. They are genuine, honest, decent farmers. I come from a farming background—my family back in India were farmers—so I understand the role of farmers and their approach. I mean no offence to them. However, there is a tiny minority of farmers about whom we have evidence from the organisations that produced the reports referred to today, so we know that there is an element in the farming community that behaves in the way I mentioned. It was not an attack on the credentials or credibility of most farmers. I wanted to make sure that was clear.

I very much thank all Members who have participated in this important debate today. The cruelty that millions of animals trapped in inhumane factory farms are exposed to every day in the UK is inexcusable in a country that prides itself on animal welfare. The overuse of antibiotics to compensate for appalling farming conditions is leading to antimicrobial resistance, or AMR, in both animal and human health.

The United Nations Environment Programme has described the spread of antibiotic resistance as a pandemic hiding in plain sight. Quite simply, we are sitting on a ticking timebomb. The health and wellbeing of animals, people and our planet are interdependent. Poor animal health and welfare in factory farming negatively affect food safety and our environment. Ending factory farming will help to curb the rise of AMR in farm animals and conserve the lifesaving medical interventions we rely on today. It will prevent millions of deaths and lead to improved animal welfare standards.

It is disappointing that the Minister has not committed in today’s debate to a ban on the overuse of antibiotics, despite compelling and concerning arguments that the overuse of antibiotics impacts not only his constituents but every constituent in this country. I urge him and the Government to reconsider their position, to follow through on a ban on the overuse of antibiotics and to ensure that there is no future for factory farming.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House
has considered the use of antibiotics on healthy farm animals and antimicrobial resistance.

Sitting adjourned.