Speech by the Minister for Agriculture, Martijn van Dam, at the High Level Meeting of the Global Health Security Agenda in Rotterdam

Your Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen,

It’s an honour for me to address such a large group. And it’s good to see that so many countries and NGOs have sent delegations to our meeting today.

We live in a changing and globalising world. A world confronted with climate change, population growth and ever-greater demand for basic needs like healthcare, food and energy. As a consequence, new risks are emerging for the human population. Like infectious diseases, antimicrobial resistance and food safety risks. So there are many important issues for us to discuss today – issues that concern the health of current and future generations.

As a father of two young children, I want them to have a future in a world that is as safe from disease as possible. That’s why we advocate the One Health approach. I’m glad to see the mix of delegations present at this conference. It’s a reflection of our ambition to work together and bridge the gaps between different areas of policy and expertise.

Today I want to talk to you about antimicrobial resistance and zoonoses.

In both cases, the One Health approach plays a crucial role in improving public and animal health. And it significantly reduces future risks.

First, antimicrobial resistance – AMR.

The Dutch health minister and I have adopted the One Health approach to tackle AMR in all sectors. And we’re convinced that it works.

In 2010 we set an ambitious goal to halve the high use of antimicrobials in the Dutch livestock sector by 2013. Farmers and veterinarians were aware of the risks of AMR for human and animal health. And took responsibility for tackling the problem in a public- private partnership.

Several measures were taken. The most important one was a national database for mandatory registration of antibiotics use at farm level.

This greatly improved transparency and oversight. Based on the new data, we set benchmarks for antibiotics use on farms.

So what did this programme achieve?

Well, Dutch livestock farms have cut antibiotics use by an amazing 58 per cent. And critically important antibiotics for human health are hardly used at all anymore. There were many concerns beforehand about the impact on businesses. But farmers have managed to maintain good economic results.

Most importantly, the programme has significantly reduced the occurrence of resistant bacteria in our livestock populations.

With this experience in mind, we’ve decided to work towards lowering veterinary use of antimicrobials even further in the years ahead.

I’m very pleased with these results. But, of course, there’s no blueprint for combating antimicrobial resistance. Countries themselves often know best what will work in their situation. I do hope, however, that the Dutch multi-sector approach will inspire you.

The second issue I want to discuss with you is zoonotic diseases. Again, it’s crucial that the human and animal health domains and other relevant sectors join forces in a One Health approach.

Zoonoses are no new threat. We’ve long been aware of the danger they pose to human health. Major breakthroughs were made in the past to combat, for example, bovine tuberculosis, mad cow disease and the plague.

But the threat of zoonoses has not disappeared. What’s more, these diseases have become notorious in the public eye. People’s attitudes have changed, and they expect better protection. This presents new challenges to government.

We have to be prepared. That means having a good monitoring system in place for timely detection of outbreaks in both humans and animals.

We should also encourage scientific research, not only to be better prepared, but also for a more rapid response.

When new animal diseases emerge, the human and veterinary health domains should work together to find out if it’s a zoonosis. Many European countries responded in this way to the outbreak of Schmallenberg virus in ruminants. In the Netherlands, public health and veterinary experts worked together from the very beginning to determine the origin of the disease and its zoonotic potential. There was also close collaboration between scientists in the EU.

It was the outbreak of Q fever in the Netherlands between 2007 and 2010 − with more than 4,000 human cases − that challenged us with questions about our cooperation. This outbreak contributed to further development of the monitoring system, the so-called Signalling Forum for Zoonotic Diseases – a platform for experts who meet every month to discuss reports of diseases in the human and animal populations.

In our experience, the One Health approach builds trust and mutual understanding between the human and veterinary health domains, and enables us to continuously improve our preparedness.

Ladies and gentleman,

These are a few of our recent experiences. We learned a lot, but we still have many issues to discuss. I’ll mention a few now, to give you inspiration for your discussions today.

Veterinary antibiotics consumption is expected to grow strongly in the years to come. Is that acceptable? Or should we simply eat less meat? Personally, I believe the latter is unavoidable, especially in wealthy countries. I don’t want to deny anyone their bit of meat, but it should be part of a balanced diet.

Another dilemma concerns our response to outbreaks of disease: should we tell the public right away? Or is it wiser to wait until we think we have enough information? I believe the latter is unavoidable, we cannot produce enough meat in a decent way.

These are questions that I think about a lot. It’s up to us – government and scientists – to find answers that can help make all communities healthier and more resilient.

Thank you.