How much antimicrobials should be used in animal farming? This is a hotly debated question among experts. But whatever their answers, they seldom include an understanding of antimicrobial use as a sustainability issue under a “social-ecological perspective”. Photo. J. Lokrantz/Azote

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Antimicrobial resistance

How much is optimal?

Optimal antimicrobial use in animal farming must be analysed as a sustainability issue under a social-ecological perspective

Story highlights

• Overuse of antimicrobials in farm animals is contributing to growing drug resistance in humans

• Decision-making on antimicrobial use and the trade-offs between animal and human welfare should be based on a social-ecological perspective

• This will require a cross-sectoral approach and the use of methods and indicators developed in several different scientific disciplines

“Lagom” is a Swedish word that, for lack of an English equivalent can be translated to mean something like “just the right amount”. When it comes to using antibiotics or other forms of antimicrobials in animal farming “lagom” may be just the right word to use.

But how much is the right amount? This is a hotly debated question among experts in fields like microbiology, medicine and public health around the world. The answer has, however, seldom included an understanding of antimicrobial use as a sustainability issue under a “social-ecological perspective”, in which human and nature are perceived as deeply entangled. This is the conclusion in a comment published in the Lancet Planetary Health written by centre researcher Peter Søgaard Jørgensen together with colleagues from Denmark, USA, Switzerland and China.

As with many unsustainable production and consumption practices, the responses to address the challenge caused by the rise of antimicrobial resistance have been formulated after the event, and scarcely consider the complexity of social-ecological systems, overlooking unexpected consequences of potential policies

Guillaume Lhermie, lead author

Resistance in humans

One of the main problems with overuse of antibiotics in farm animals is that it is contributing to growing drug resistance in humans and even the rise of “superbugs”, sometimes resistant to all available antibiotics. Such resistance to antibiotics, which are the building blocks of modern health systems, is on the rise and already kills hundreds of thousands every year and risks undermining human health and global development.

This growing public health issue is now encouraging voluntary agreements, taxes, and other policies to decrease antimicrobial use in food-producing animals. But how much must it be reduced to reach sustainable levels?

“We propose to determine optimal antimicrobial use in animal agriculture using a social-ecological systems framework and multi-criteria decision analysis, beyond the classic cost–benefit or risk analysis perspectives,” the authors write.

This will require a cross-sectoral approach and the use of methods developed in several different disciplines, the authors conclude. For example, combining methods for environmental systems analysis with tools used in public health and economics is of particular concern. To fully understand the trade-offs between animal and human welfare, there needs to be more analyses that assess a diversity of public health, economic, environmental, social, and policy response indicators.

Topics: Antibiotics

Related info

Lhermie, G., Wernli, D., Jørgensen, P.S., Kenkel, D., Tauer, L.W., Gröhn, Y.T. 2019. Global resistance to antimicrobials and their sustainable use in agriculture. The Lancet Planetary Health, Volume 3, Issue 3, Pe109-e110, March 01, 2019. DOI:

Link to publication

Peter Søgaard Jørgensen’s research focuses on measuring sustainable development in the Anthropocene and developing new approaches to deal with antibiotic resistance.


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