Antimicrobial resistance (AMR) is an emerging public health threat requiring a globally coordinated effort to counter the risks it poses to food security, Helena Semedo, deputy director general of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) said on February 10.
Overuse and misuse of antibiotics and other antimicrobial agents foster increasing resistance among the very microbes that cause the infections and disease they were designed to quell, threatening to reverse a century of progress in human and animal health, she said.
"We have to help save live-saving drugs," she told European ministers of health and agriculture at a conference on antimicrobial resistance in Amsterdam.
Aside from the human health considerations, the emergence of microbes resistant to antibiotics and other pharmaceutical agents puts animal health at risk and consequently has an impact on rural livelihoods and food security. "AMR is a global threat that in this inter-connected world cannot be solved in Europe alone," Semedo said.
FAO's governing Conference in 2015 called for urgent action at both the national and international levels to respond to the growing threat of drug-resistant pathogens in the world's food producing systems - terrestrial and aquatic.
While resistance develops as part of natural adaptation, it is exacerbated by inappropriate use of pharmaceuticals, she said, and the prevalence of resistance in the agricultural sector is generally higher in animal species reared under intensive production systems.
Disease management is one of the tough challenges, along with climate change and urbanization, the world faces as it must increase food production to feed an expanding global population expected to reach 10 billion by 2050 the needs of the future global population, Semedo said.
AMR is a tendency organisms - often bacteria, but also fungi and parasites - have to adapt to drugs designed to eliminate them. Use of such agents extends beyond humans and other animal species; for example, oxytetracycline, a common antibiotic - is currently used in orange trees as the use of pesticides wanes.
Solution needed to assure food security
Solutions for AMR must be found, Semedo said.
"How can we eliminate hunger or improve sustainability when we cannot cure sick animals?" she asked. "How can we reduce rural poverty when the drugs given to ill farm workers and their families no longer have effect?"
To help combat AMR and deliver on its core strategic objectives - eradication of hunger and rural poverty, sustainable agriculture and more resilient livelihoods - FAO is engaged on multiple fronts. It is working closely with the World Health Organization and the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) as well as on the global level through the food safety guidelines of the Codex Alimentarius and through targeted field programs in dozens of countries on all continents.
While applauding Europe's interest in the cause and hailing the Netherlands in particular for its slashing the amount of drugs used in its prosperous livestock sector by almost 60 percent in recent years, "the real challenge for us is to translate such efforts to countries in need with poor resources," Semedo noted. "The risk of AMR appears to be particularly high in countries where legislation, surveillance, prevention and monitoring of AMR are weak or inadequate."
Given today's fast travel, a AMR organism in one country could in a few hours be within another, underscoring the benefits to be had from all countries investing in increasing awareness on AMR, strengthening their veterinary and public health systems, and improving hygiene along the food production chain to assure safe markets, said Semedo.
Although the Organization favors prudent regulations and measures to control the influx of medicines and reduce their use, it also notes that many rural smallholders and pastoralists often face difficult economic choices and that counterfeit drugs are rampant. Broad improvements in hygiene, disease prevention, veterinary oversight and accurate and affordable diagnostics, as well as ensuring quality nutrition to improve the overall health of livestock and fish through safe feed and suitable breeds are critical in reducing overuse of antibiotics.
Considering that seven out of every 10 newly discovered human diseases are of animal origin, Semedo underscored the centrality of farming practices and food systems in the effort to contain AMR, bolstering FAO's commitment to the "One-Health" approach that comprises human, animal and environmental wellness.
"FAO is uniquely placed to contribute to international efforts in addressing AMR," she said.