In Conversation with Nicolette Niman and Richard Young
Farmers play a fundamental role in the debate of raising livestock free of antibiotics. Nicolette Niman is a rancher in Northern California, a passionate advocate of sustainable food production and an author of books and essays on related topics. Richard Young, Policy Director of Sustainable Food Trust, is a seasoned supporter of organic farming standards, and a respected researcher of agriculture, disease, and the misuse of antibiotics, and nurtures livestock and 390 acres in the United Kingdom. Together Richard and Nicolette bring a holistic perspective of antibiotic use, the agribusiness industry and what it means to be an ethical provider to livestock and steward to the land.
Nicolette Niman: When you take into account the impact on soil, water pollution, water usage, air pollution, everything, really, you’ll see that raising cattle and other grazing animals on grass is so much more environmentally appropriate. Whether you’re considering the healthfulness of the food or the humane treatment of the animals, or the impact on the community, there are a lot of other arguments that need to be taken into consideration when you’re comparing different systems. The way cattle raising works in the United States, you have the herds, the mother cows, in the West. The offspring of those mothers are sent to feedlots which tend to be more in the center of the country. That’s not strictly how it goes, but that’s the bulk of the way the industry is shaped. And the way antibiotics are used in the United States in the mainstream cattle industry is once they’re in a feedlot, they will be continually fed antibiotics, both in order to stimulate their growth and also to prevent them from getting diseases from the stress of being in that more crowded environment and being in an eating diet that is dissimilar from what they are used to and what their bodies are most adapted to.
Richard Young: In the UK approximately 59% of all antibiotics are given to pigs, 32% to poultry and about 5 or 6% to cattle, and most of those to dairy cattle. So cattle get a very much smaller proportion of the antibiotics in UK, and yet we’ve got for example 33 million sheep and we’ve only got 5 million pigs and yet the pigs have 120 times more antibiotics than the sheep. So if you work that out with relative numbers, it means that the pigs are actually getting more than 1,000 times more antibiotics than an individual sheep.
Nicolette Niman: That really illustrates the contrast between keeping an animal out on grass and keeping it confined, right?
Richard Young: I think to be fair to the pig producers, of course the other thing is that pigs are much more prolific. If you take a sow, you’ll be having two litters of pigs a year, sometimes more than two, and maybe having 14 or 15 piglets either time, she could be producing 30 piglets a year whereas sheep normally only produce one, two or possibly three lambs each. But on the other hand, I think that there’s a huge difference which largely relates to the difference between intensive and extensive farming systems.
Nicolette Niman: Because in an extensive system, where the animals are outdoors, they’re exercising, they’re breathing fresh air, they’re getting sunshine, they’re essentially getting the elements of what it takes to be a healthful animal. Whereas when you’re in a crowded confined building, as almost all pigs and poultry are, you’re really struggling as an individual animal to remain healthy, because you’re not breathing fresh air, in fact you’re breathing a lot of fumes, you’re breathing a lot of dust. In the United States I know in fact the respiratory illnesses for pigs are the number one health problem, and that’s one of the main reasons they use so much antibiotics in pigs. And I think it’s very difficult for them to stay healthy in a place like that without drugs.
Richard Young: Well I think if you go back actually in the US before 1949 or 1950 and in the UK before 1953, we didn’t really have this sort of intensive livestock systems that we’ve become used to. Once they started using antibiotics for growth promotion and got legislation to allow antibiotics to be used in that way that this routine use of antibiotics made possible the intensive confinement of pigs and poultry. Because before that, some of the attempts to keep animals intensively in the 1920s and 1930s became uneconomical because of the levels of mortality that occurred.
Nicolette Niman: And they kept trying to figure out ways to do confine them, because it would save a lot of money, a lot of labor and a lot of resources. So there were a lot of attempts, but as you say, it didn’t become routine to add antibiotics until the 1950s, and then that’s when it really enabled that kind of production. But then of course when we began doing that, there were all kinds of downstream effects, and the most troubling of all of those is the fact that antibiotics were getting out into the water supply, they were getting into the food supply, they were getting into the air. So we push down on one part of the system and something else pops up and that’s very much the case with antibiotics, you use them maybe as a shortcut, as a way to cheapen production, but then you have these negative downstream effects.
Richard Young: And I tend to think myself that the whole concept of growth promotion was really a very clever ploy by the drug companies to get legislators to agree to allow antibiotics to be used routinely. If you think about it, in 1953, when the British Government first allowed penicillin and tetracycline to be put in livestock feed for growth promotion, that was just 10 years after penicillin had first become available for regular use in the UK and the first time in the whole of human history that we could treat bacteria and infections, which had been killing people for thousands of years. Then literally 10 years later we start putting it in the animal feed supplies on a regular basis. Of course, at that time they didn’t understand that antibiotic resistance was transferable between bacteria or that the small, the low, sub-therapeutic doses were actually more dangerous than therapeutic doses, because they tend to encourage resistance.
Nicolette Niman: In this particular issue, you have the convergence of the drug industries, the food industry and the agribusiness industry all coming together arguing against regulating the use of these antibiotics. And I think the only real solution to it is going to come from public pressure, because of the incredible political power that these industries have in our legislative system, it’s going to have to come from consumer pressure. The changes we have seen thus far are a result of consumer demand and consumer pressure. That’s my main message about this issue, that this has to come from people choosing not to buy meats that were raised with antibiotics, the daily feeding of antibiotics that is. And they must demand it, tell their legislators and tell the retailers, ‘We want our animals to be raised without being fed antibiotics’. Industrial agriculture keeps animals in a stressful environment. They use antibiotics as a crutch. When corporations raise livestock, they want maximum return on their investment. The way they get that is through increased production. If they pour concrete, they want as many animals on that concrete as they can possibly get on it. If there’s a building over the top of it, they want as many animals in there as will fit. It isn’t natural for an animal to be in those tightly confined quarters and as a result it is subject to disease due to stress and the environment that it is in. They feed sub-therapeutic antibiotics to the animals to try to keep them from getting sick. The antibiotics also increase performance and weight gain.
Richard Young, Policy Director of Sustainable Food Trust, has been an editor of the journal New Farmer & Grower and Chairman of the Soil Association’s Symbol Committee, which drew up detailed organic farming standards in the 1980s. For the past 17 years, he has campaigned against the misuse of antibiotics in agriculture, seeing this as a threat not only to human health but also to farmers’ long-term ability to treat infectious disease in their animals. He has also made a study of issues relating to agriculture and greenhouse gas emissions, as well as the underlying causes of bovine tuberculosis and Johne’s Disease. As a devoted cattle and sheep farmer, and avid yet informed meat eater, he is a strong supporter of the benefits associated with meat from grass-fed animals. Richard Young and his sister Rosamund nurture their 390 acres on the Cotswolds.
Nicolette Hahn Niman is an attorney and livestock rancher. She is a passionate advocate of sustainable food production, author of the new Defending Beef and Righteous Porkchop: Finding a Life and Good Food Beyond Factory Farms, and numerous essays for the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, TheAtlantic.com and Huffington Post. She has given talks contrasting industrial production with sustainable farming all over the United States. Previously, she was Senior Attorney for the environmental organization Waterkeeper where she was in charge of the organization’s campaign to reform the concentrated livestock and poultry industry. She lives in Northern California with her son, Miles, and her husband, Bill Niman, founder of Niman Ranch, a natural meat company supplied by a network of over 700 traditional farmers and ranchers.