Don't forget the 'superbugs' in our food

10 August 2017 Global

Since the 1950s, it was reported that antibiotics were added to animal feed to increase and promote the growth rate of livestock in the United States. FILE PICSince the 1950s, it was reported that antibiotics were added to animal feed to increase and promote the growth rate of livestock in the United States. FILE PIC

One of the critical limiting factors for the mismatch of supply and demand in food is barriers to international trade. For more than a decade, despite the tremendous amount of resources and time spent by World Trade Organisation (WTO) members, negotiations in agriculture trade have been to no avail.

If trade policy makers are serious about making real progress in international trade, especially when there is increasing trade protectionism since 2007/2008, then bold new approaches should be introduced.

To date, the agriculture sector has progressed and transformed in recent years beyond recognition, especially with more investment allocated and use of technologies, ranging from precision farming and data analytics to the Internet of things and gene editing.

In short, agriculture production has become increasingly systematised and evolved into an industry parallel to the manufacturing sector, especially where scientific and technical knowledge, coupled with precision equipment and sensors are used, as observed in urban farming.

Now is the time for the global community to push for the changes in business models and technologies by having an integrated single agreement covering goods and services for WTO, bilateral and/or regional trade deals. Such a bold agreement should include agriculture so that food supply can be unlocked through free trade to address the challenge of food demand and food security.

There are two trade-related issues that policymakers and negotiators should ponder. One is the need to re-examine the treatment of by-products and volume discount for bulk purchase in both manufacturing and agriculture sectors within the context of WTO’s Anti-Dumping Agreement. The second issue for trade policymakers and negotiators to ponder is the Country of Origin (COO). Many tangible products have embedded proprietary knowledge and technologies. However, to incorporate these unique features, such products need not be physically shipped from or routed through the original country, where these unique knowledge and technologies are created during the production processes. Thus, the attribution of which is the COO for the product becomes an issue, especially in the case of preferential trade.

At last month’s World Agricultural Forum conference, James Bolger, the forum’s advisory board chairman and former New Zealand prime minister, had articulated that, “we (humans) need the earth to live, but the earth does not need us to live”. Such timely advice on the needs for the global community to focus our attention on the health of our planet earth triggers us to share our concern on another issue equally important and critical to the existence of our human civilisation, viz antibiotics.

Antibiotics, for years, have been selectively used in livestock farming. Initially, antibiotics were utilised for therapeutic purposes, such as treatment of animals detected with sickness. Since the 1950s, it was reported that antibiotics were added to animal feed to increase and promote the growth rate of livestock in the United States. Increasingly, such practice is found almost globally. Today, it is estimated that around 70 per cent of all antibiotics administered are used for livestock.

Over time, the extensive use of antibiotics in both livestock and human creates genetic changes in bacteria and other microbes, leading to the elimination of the effectiveness of drugs to cure or prevent infections. This has severe consequences as antibiotic resistance is known to pass from bacterium to bacterium; and resistant bacterial infections can also pass from person to person. In essence, every person could potentially become a “terrorist within each of us” as the anti-microbial resistance, or superbug, is taking root in our society.

Without effective anti-microbials for treatment and prevention of infections, this implies that infections from surgical procedures, such as transplants, Caesarean sections or hip replacements and infection in immunocompromised patients following chemotherapy for cancer treatment, will likely result in prolonged illness, disability, and death.

While addressing food security through free trade, one should not forget the “terrorist within each of us”. As a global community, we should work in tandem to limit the usage of antibiotics in both human and farms; and commit to share information gathered in different countries relating to anti-microbial resistance. Such an initiative would facilitate the creation of a global database of DNA sequences for microorganisms to enhance food safety and global public health.