Can China Kick Its Animal Antibiotic Habit?

High in the hills of Fuzhou, surrounded by acres of rustling bamboo, is a small farm that is pioneering something genuinely unusual in China. Here in the Fujian province, they have turned their backs on industrial farming in favour of natural methods. After years of working in the industrial farming sector Mr Sun (not his real name – he asked to remain anonymous) wanted to create a space to raise animals with “respect for nature, respect for life.” He dreams of producing high-quality, organic crops – honey, eggs, pork, goose, chicken and fish – and creating a platform on which people can share knowledge and ideas around natural farming practices. Covering just 120 acres and run by agricultural students, the farm eschews antibiotics, and its pigs and chicken get plenty of exercises. Sun was inspired in part by his profound concern about the rising number of antibiotics and growth hormones being fed to animals on Chinese farms. “Last century people decided that they didn’t want fatty meat, they wanted leaner meat, so factories started producing ractopamine to make the animals muscular,” he told the Guardian. “Then it got banned, and they stopped. Consumers do impact [the decisions] of the factories.”

Right now, China is the world’s largest consumer of agricultural antibiotics, out-dosing even the US by eight tonnes to every person. A 2013 study by the Chinese Academy of Sciences found that 162,000 tons of antibiotics are consumed in China each year, with 52% going to animal husbandry. In the US, 70% of antibiotics amounting to 10,000 tons are consumed by livestock each year. At another, very different farm nearby, Mr Zhang (not his real name) rears pork on a larger scale using methods more typical of intensive farming. Animals are reared in indoor pens in much closer proximity on a diet of a factory-made meal. With 4,000 pigs on site, the air in the pig sheds is stifling. Zhang’s farm is part of a chain that specialises in “ecological agriculture” and prides itself on its environmental approach to raising, slaughtering and processing meat. On its website, it states a commitment to “safety, health and deliciousness”, and a “custom-first” approach. “Here we give pigs antibiotics twice in their lifetime, whether they are sick or not. Once when they come out of the nursery, and once when they are adult. We try to avoid putting the antibiotics in the feed, but many farmers do, it’s very common,” he says. Zhang estimates it costs about 1,200 yuan (£140) on average to raise a lean hog to adulthood, with medicine accounting for 2-10% of the total bill. We learn from the vet that the antibiotics used by other local farmers include amoxicillin, tilmicosin and florfenicol, which are added to feed, whereas chloramphenicol, which is used on humans to treat ear and eye infections, is injected. Chlortetracycline used to treat skin ailments on pigs – and on people – and cephalosporin are used, too. “Nowadays everyone uses antibiotics. Profit is motivating the whole thing. Using antibiotics is a precaution against loss of pigs. A mortality rate of 15% is considered acceptable. But there are certain super bacteria that cannot be stopped. For farmers, they are cutting out the risk,” he explains.

China at risk

But a global alarm has been sounded about antibiotic prescription on farms following the rise of antimicrobial resistance. A growing number of bacteria that are resistant to some of our most important antibiotics are now leaving humans exposed to serious and previously curable illnesses. The heavy use of antibiotics on farms is believed to be a significant factor in the rapid growth of antimicrobial resistance (AMR). In fact, it was in China that one of the biggest red flags on anti-microbial resistance went up for scientists, when a bacterium resistant to colistin, a so-called “last in line” drug, was detected in 2014. Microbiologist Tim Walsh, one of the report’s authors, describes the discovery as “the Holy Grail moment” in this field of science. Discussions led to the Chinese government swiftly banning the use of the drug in agriculture. “Forecasts predict that by 2030 the big poultry producers in the world will be China and India. Knowing what we now know there has to be a complete revising of how we globally manage our food systems,” Walsh says. In 2015, Fudan University’s school of public health tested the urine of 1,000 schoolchildren aged 8-11 in Shanghai, Jiangsu and Zhejiang, and found that in 60% of samples at least one antibiotic was found, with two found in 25% of the samples. It detected drugs, such as tylosin and enrofloxacin, that are only licensed for use on farmed animals. The study found evidence that exposure to antibiotics in childhood can raise the risk of obesity by threefold.

What the law says

For many years Chinese farmers have been able to buy and use antibiotics without the need for any prescription. “The Chinese government is shortening the list of antibiotics approved for animal use,” according to Wanqing Zhou, an associate of environmental NGO Brighter Green. “However, it has been and is still the case that the farmers can obtain and use antibiotics without a prescription.” China’s government is now trying to crack down on medicating healthy farm animals (a practice known as metaphylaxis). After all, China has a lot at stake. It currently produces half of the world’s pork, and chicken and beef farming are also on the rise, albeit more slowly. In its drive to feed the population, and allow them the access to cheap meat that the west already enjoys, it has embraced the industrial farming model pioneered by the US. The government has committed to addressing AMR. It is one of 192 signatories to the UN’s “One Health” agenda. The former Ministry of Agriculture has made three recommendations to tackle the issue: the gradual phase-out of certain types of antibiotics critical to treating humans; tightening regulation to ensure some drugs are legal only with a prescription; and improved monitoring of drug usage.

Campaign group Greenpeace Asia says this does not go far enough and is calling for an immediate ban of the use of drugs critical to humans, and the phase-out of antibiotic use as a growth hormone (already banned in several countries). It advocates the promotion of alternative methods for promoting animal health, such as free-range farming and the use of natural herbs and medicines to treat sickness. But convincing farmers to stop using the antibiotics, which are heavily promoted by drugs companies, will not be easy. “The government has realised the public health risks and is trying to gradually reduce antibiotic use in the livestock industry,” says Wanqing, “but given the sheer amount of medium-sized animal farms, law enforcement will remain extremely challenging, and any progress is expected to take place rather slowly. Even though some growth hormones have been banned, farmers continue to use them. They hide it from inspection authorities when they come around to check their books,” says Zhang. On his small patch of green, Sun believes the government will tackle the problem quickly but is realistic about the future. “The government is monitoring this situation closely. They need to let farmers know about the dangers of overdosing. They need to provide examples. They have already set up training courses and put up posters and created new certifications. Implementation and monitoring will be the biggest challenge. To recognise the truth is very important to consumers. I am optimistic. This [surveying the farmland around him] is not the final solution. This is my utopia.”

Credit: Charlotte Middlehurst for The Guardian, 19 June 2018.