While the misuse of antimicrobials in human health is a key factor accelerating the emergence of drug resistance, we should not overlook the role of agriculture. In the livestock sector, a significant portion of antimicrobials are provided in subtherapeutic doses over long periods of time to speed growth and prevent disease, rather than to treat illness. Currently, the United States and countries across Europe are major users of antimicrobials in livestock, but there is rapid growth in key developing countries. Following the recent discovery of a bacterial gene in pigs and people that conveys resistance to a last resort antibiotic drug, addressing agriculture’s contribution to antimicrobial resistance is more urgent. Moreover, the fact that the gene was discovered within a relatively short time in both China and the United States underscores the global nature of the problem. Drug resistant superbugs do not respect borders. To date, however, there has been little concrete action at the global level.
This paper makes the case for a global treaty to reduce antimicrobial use in livestock. We propose that negotiations could begin with the two dozen or so key countries that account for the majority of global antimicrobial use in farm animals. This could help make significant inroads into the problem, even as those countries work to expand the treaty’s membership. Drawing on lessons learned from the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer, the paper outlines a framework for a global treaty to reduce livestock’s contribution to the health threat posed by the spread of antimicrobial resistant bacteria.