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UCL Institute for Sustainable Resources Blog


Discussing global sustainability issues


Climate and health: the joint case for restricting animal antibiotics use

By ucqbndj, on 6 May 2014

Veterinary injection(c) JevticClimate change mitigation and the preservation of antibiotics effectiveness are two of today’s greatest public policy challenges. Each call for a similar measure, wherefore they should be considered in a joint perspective:

First, the looming threat of climate change calls for concerted action. Among the vast array of different measures, reducing methane emissions from farm animals could make a great contribution. Also, the pressure to convert land to produce food for animals reduces the availability of carbon sinks. Thus, reducing demand for animal feedstock can contribute to climate change mitigation efforts.

Second, the routine use of antimicrobials/antibiotics for increasing animal growth or preserving animal health is likely to lead to the to the development of infections resistant to antibiotics treatment in humans (Tavernise 2013). While the case for banning the use of antibiotics for maximising animal growth is particularly strong, there are also good arguments for further restricting its use even for preserving animal health. Antibiotics have been the “wonder drugs” of the 20th century, saving immeasurable lives. Yet, today their effectiveness is becoming more and more diminished due to the development of resistant bacteria strains. Trading human health off for animal health is problematic. Even more, in today’s industrialised farming the living conditions of animals are often dismal, necessitating the standard use of antibiotics in the first place. If farm animals had more decent lives, the need for antibiotics would decline. This is reflected in the limitations on the use of antibiotics in organic agriculture (Borell and Sørensen 2004).

By looking at the joint benefits of policy responses to these problems, the argument base for taking action to address any of them is broadened and the costs calculus changes:

If antimicrobials use on animals were rigorously restricted, it would have strong implications for the dairy and meat industry. Animals couldn’t be crowded together as extremely as they are today, thus reducing feedstock input and methane emissions output per land unit. Feedstock is often sourced from abroad, the demand for which is adding pressure to turn more biodiverse and CO2 storing land into agricultural land. Letting cows graze on grassland is associated with lower emission than intensive grain feeding (Bellarby et al. 2013). Thus, under the assumption that not simply more land will be used for putting animals on the pasture or in the barn, limiting animal antibiotics use can have a double climate policy benefit: less methane and less pressure to convert land for feedstock supply.

Happy cows, healthier humans, and a more stable climate: restricting the use of antibiotics on animals can support all of this.

Nino Jordan, Doctoral Researcher, UCL ISR
Nino is a doctoral researcher at the UCL Institute for Sustainable Resources. His research focuses on business interests towards environmental regulation and the interactions between innovation and regulation.View Nino’s profile.


Bellarby, Jessica, Reyes Tirado, Adrian Leip, Franz Weiss, Jan Peter Lesschen, and Pete Smith. 2013. “Livestock Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Mitigation Potential in Europe.” Global Change Biology 19 (1) (January): 3–18. doi:10.1111/j.1365-2486.2012.02786.x. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1365-2486.2012.02786.x/abstract.

Borell, E. von, and J. T. Sørensen. 2004. “Organic Livestock Production in Europe: aims, Rules and Trends with Special Emphasis on Animal Health and Welfare.” Livestock Production Science, Trends and Development in Organic Livestock Farming Systems 90 (1): 3–9. doi:10.1016/j.livprodsci.2004.07.003. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0301622604001150.

Tavernise, Sabrina. 2013. “F.D.A. Restricts Antibiotics Use for Livestock, 11 December.” The New York Times (December). http://www.nytimes.com/2013/12/12/health/fda-to-phase-out-use-of-some-antibiotics-in-animals-raised-for-meat.html.

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