Reducing the input of antibiotics from agricultural livestock husbandry into the environment

EU to retrospectively assess medicines - Internet portal launched for veterinary medical products for farmers and veterinarians

Zeichnung mit folgenden Motiven: Traktor mit Güllebehälter und Schleppschlauchvorrichtung zur Gülleausbringung, Veterinärzeichen, Rind, Schwein, Pute, HühnerClick to enlarge
Portaltitelbild „Tierarzneimittel in der Umwelt“
Source: Umweltbundesamt

The German Environment Agency (UBA) recommends that EU lawmakers prescribe an environmental assessment for previously approved veterinary medicinal products for which no environmental data have yet been collected. This is especially important for antibiotics because they can promote the formation of resistant pathogens in soil and water. Also required are criteria for approval which verify the resistance potential of antibiotics. In addition, UBA wants to introduce the mandatory and comprehensive monitoring of problematic medicines in water bodies and soils. Antibiotic resistance is a threat to human health particularly in hospitals, but UBA also views the discovery of increasing amounts of antibiotics in the environment with great concern. UBA President Maria Krautzberger said: “We have to stop the presence of antibiotics residues in the environment from becoming a problem because this could promote the development of resistances.” Both antibiotics and resistant pathogens can make their way into water and soil via manure and slurry from animal husbandry, thus promoting the natural emergence of resistances. “That is why we need to work together with veterinary medicine and agriculture to reduce the input of antibiotics from animal husbandry.” To mark the start of “Green Week”, UBA is launching a new Internet portal entitled “Tierarzneimittel in der Umwelt” (“Veterinary Medicines in the Environment”). The portal proposes practical measures in particular for veterinary technicians and farmers to minimise the input of antibiotics into the environment.

Since 2014, negotiations on new legislation for the approval of veterinary medicines have been underway in the EU. The EU Commission's proposal focuses in particular on antibiotics and their risks to human health. For the German Environment Agency, this is an opportunity to ensure that environmental considerations are taken into account more fully in the approvals procedure. UBA has for a long time been drawing attention to the lack of environmental assessments for “old medicines”. For instance, there are no comprehensive environmental assessments for around 50 percent of the antibiotics approved for use in farm animals, since EU-wide rules for such assessments did not exist before 2005. UBA is therefore calling for or a EU-wide “old medicines programme” for the retrospective environmental assessment of veterinary medicines. This would apply, for example, to the commonly used antibiotic sulfamethazine, which is used to treat respiratory and intestinal infections in pigs and chickens. In Germany, UBA has already demonstrated the presence of this active agent in soil and groundwater.

The proliferation of antibiotics via slurry and dung used as commercial manure is also problematic. These are vectors for the input of antibiotic-resistant germs into the environment. There they can multiply and pass their resistance genes on to pathogens which are dangerous to human beings. The more often this happens, the more readily resistant germs can grow and prevail.

As there is a close link between animal health, human health and the environment in the use of antibiotics, preventive cross-sector action (a one-health approach) is required. “We currently still don't have a comprehensive overview of the occurrence of antibiotics in the environment. So what we need is compulsory EU-wide monitoring of certain antibiotics and other problematic active agents used in medicines - in rivers, lakes, streams, groundwater and agricultural soils,” said UBA's President Krautzberger. She went on to say that it would be expedient to examine antimicrobial resistance in potential resistance “hot-spots” such as in sewage treatment plants, hospitals, large animal feed plants and close to pharmaceutical production facilities. Last year saw the publication of an EU action plan to combat antimicrobial resistance, but no compulsory environmental measures have as yet been introduced. UBA believes there must be a greater focus on the environment in this action plan.

Users of veterinary drugs can also play their part in reducing the use of antibiotics. On the Internet portal “Tierarzneimittel in der Umwelt” at, UBA provides over 20 articles with information and recommendations for farmers, veterinarians, and interested consumers. These have been co-written with vets and farmers. Particular emphasis is placed on prevention - in other words, on husbandry conditions that reduce disease - and on strengthening the immune system. After all, veterinary medical products which don't need to be administered in the first place will not pollute the environment.

The use of antibiotics in animal husbandry in Germany has decreased by more than half since 2011, to 742 tonnes (2016). However, the amount of antibiotics from active ingredient classes which are, for instance, also important for human medical therapy remains as high as ever (BVL, 2017). Their use in animal husbandry has an impact on the environment. The antibiotics residues excreted by animals along with their manure are deposited on our fields, where they can accumulate in the soil. Antibiotics residues are also detected sporadically in ground and surface water. These residues in water bodies can be very harmful to some aquatic organisms. Moreover, they can promote the formation of resistance in microorganisms which live naturally in soil and water. As these might also include microorganisms which cause disease in humans, every effort should be made to avoid the increased occurrence and spread of resistances in the environment.

Umweltbundesamt Hauptsitz

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