Speech by Minister for Agriculture Sharon Dijksma at the Ministerial Conference on Antibiotic Resistance

Speech by Minister for Agriculture Sharon Dijksma at the Ministerial Conference on Antibiotic Resistance 'Joining forces for future health' on 26 June in The Hague

Ladies and gentlemen,

It sounds like science fiction, like something that could only happen in the very distant future. The last working antibiotic is no longer effective. And a simple infection could prove fatal. However, this could easily become a reality. There are ever increasing numbers of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, but no new antibiotics to stop them.

Yesterday, you heard what could happen from Daphne Deckers, the Dutch writer who suffered from a kidney infection that did not respond to treatment.

As discussed, the growing number of resistant bacteria is partly the result of the overuse and abuse of antibiotics in human healthcare. But resistant bacteria can also develop in livestock production. This is caused by the careless and excessive use of antibiotics in food-producing animals, and can result in resistant bacteria in humans as well.

That’s why we cannot tackle the issue in human healthcare if we allow the excessive use in animal healthcare to persist. The Netherlands became aware of this in 2009. Our progressive policy for preventing infections and containing antimicrobial resistance in public healthcare, was in stark contrast with our widespread veterinary use of antibiotics. Data showed that in Europe, the Netherlands was one of the largest users of veterinary antibiotics. This awareness led to action. And the action resulted in a drastic reduction: in four years’ time we have reduced the veterinary use of antibiotics by 57%. I am pleased to share our story with you.

Widely-recognised need for urgent action

Ladies and Gentlemen,

The European data that identified the widespread use of antibiotics in the Netherlands were published at a time when our livestock production was becoming an increasingly hot topic. Due to outbreaks of various animal diseases, livestock farming came under the spotlight. In the Netherlands we had just witnessed the outbreak of q-fever, a disease that was transmissible to humans.

The awareness that animal diseases and resistant bacteria could be passed to humans, together with the shocking statistics about the extensive use of antibiotics in livestock farming, led to great public and political concern.

There was widely- recognised need for urgent action. Not last in livestock sector and among veterinarians themselves. There was also a strong political commitment, shared by Minister Schippers of Health, to ensure the more prudent use of antibiotics in human and veterinary healthcare.

The policy was set up as a public-private partnership. The stakeholders from the major livestock production sectors took up their responsibility, and were facilitated by the national government, which also invested in enforcement. Together with our private partners we set reduction targets: 20% in 2011, 50% in 2013 and 70% in 2015.

A new policy

So, what were the basics of this new policy?

  • Firstly, awareness leads to action. By gaining insight into the use of antibiotics, we can take targeted measures. We have therefore switched to compulsory central and transparent user registration: Since 2011, registration of antibiotic use in animals has been mandatory for forty thousand farmers in the Netherlands .
  • Secondly, veterinarians and livestock farmers are responsible for antibiotic use, and are therefore key players in addressing the problem. Together, they have made efforts to reduce the use of antibiotics in livestock , while also encouraging more responsible use. Veterinarians therefore developed professional guidelines for prudent use of antibiotics, which they were required to follow.
  • Furthermore, prevention is better than cure: the livestock sector must focus of the prevention of animal diseases. A compulsory plan for each farm to improve animal health was therefore introduced by the sector itself.
  • Finally, it only works if the issue is approached from the perspective of ‘One Health’. Human health is paramount, which for example means last-resort antibiotics should not be administered to livestock. And we have set strict conditions for the use of antibiotics that are critical for public health.

This approach has delivered results! Not only has the use of antibiotics been reduced by over half compared to 2009., statistics show that the use of the most critical antibiotics for humans has decreased to almost zero in most livestock sectors. Crucially, this reduction in use appears to have made a real impact: the number of resistant ESBL bacteria in animals in the Dutch livestock sector has declined significantly over the past two years.

And last but least, this has not affected the economic performances of farms. At the start of this process, some livestock farmers feared that reducing the use of antibiotics would affect their results. Statistics and production-results show farmers and their veterinarians have managed to lower the use of antibiotics while maintaining good production and profitability.

Global Action Plan

Ladies and Gentlemen,

There is no blueprint for reducing the use of antibiotics in livestock farming. However, the Dutch lessons learned can be key elements for a regional and international approach. At the same time, the Netherlands can also learn from the experiences of other countries. That is why today I invite you to share your vision, experiences and best practices. And to provide input for the Global Action Plan.

In my opinion, the Action Plan should contain specific actions that address the following areas:

  • transparency and surveillance of veterinary use of antibiotics and resistance in animals
  • national and global measures for prudent use of antibiotics in livestock, particularly reserving newly developed and last resort antibiotics for human use
  • infection prevention: improve animal health on farms

I am very curious to hear your vision on this. Which concrete actions should be not be missing from the Action Plan? And what actions do you take at home? Guided by the Global Action Plan, we must in the first place act at national level. Because a Global Action Plan is redundant if we do not take domestic action.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Antibiotic resistance is a global problem. The time in which we only ate what we produced ourselves and only moved within our national boundaries belongs to the distant past. Today alone, we have representatives from some twenty countries here. We no longer confine ourselves to national borders, and resistant bacteria certainly do not. This must also be reflected in our approach. So let’s join forces to combat antibiotic resistance. For our generation and for the generations to follow.

I wish all of us every success in meeting this challenge!