Potential overuse of antibiotics on industrial farms raises health concerns for humans says new global report


Public rivers and streams next to factory farms in Canada, Spain, Thailand and the USA – where animals suffer a lifetime of misery to become food – have been found to contain antibiotic resistance genes that are dangerous to people’s health, according to our new research

Industrial animal agriculture is taking risks with people's lives by routinely using antibiotics, which is fueling the rise in dangerous superbugs.

The first multi-country investigation of its kind, ‘Silent superbug killers in a river near you’, found powerful antibiotic resistance genes (ARGs) downstream from factory farms.

Leaking into surrounding environments

The study's findings suggest factory farms could be discharging antibiotic resistance genes and superbugs into the wider environment, as a result of pig waste being spread on fields and leeching into public waterways. Once in the environment, superbugs can reach humans in multiple ways. This includes through recreation such as water sports, eating fish from contaminated water and eating of crops contaminated with surface water.  

Water testing near a factory farm - World Animal Protection

Water testing near a factory farm

ARGs should be of concern because they are the building blocks for “superbugs” (bacteria that have developed resistance to one or more antibiotics). This means those antibiotics will be less effective, or ineffective, in treating infections in humans. Some antibiotics are already ineffective in some parts of the world. If action is not taken, in the future, routine procedures like caesarean sections or cancer treatments could become dangerous worldwide.

In Manitoba, the presence of ARGs was evaluated from samples collected in November 2020 from publicly accessible spaces upstream and downstream of eight industrial pig farms. The investigation found ARGs resistant to antibiotics included cephalosporins and fluoroquinolones, which are of most concern to the World Health Organization (WHO). These antibiotics are the last line of defence for common infections like urinary tract infections or to keep patients alive with life threatening conditions like respiratory infections, when other antibiotics fail.

Worse than Covid-19?

The superbug crisis poses a threat that could eclipse even the Covid-19 pandemic. Already, more than 700,000 people die each year from superbugs where antibiotics are ineffective in treating infections.

Alarmingly, up to 10 million people are expected to die from superbugs each year by 2050.

Factory farms not following WHO recommendations

The WHO recommends that antibiotics should not be routinely used to prevent disease across groups of farm animals. Despite this, the practice remains widespread on cruel factory farms with as much as 75% of the world’s antibiotics used on farm animals.

Bottles with water from waterways near factory farms to be tested - World Animal Protection

Bottles holding water from waterways surrounding factory farms

Lynn Kavanagh, Farming Campaign Manager, at World Animal Protection, says,

"Industrial animal agriculture is taking risks with people's lives by routinely using antibiotics, which is fueling the rise in dangerous superbugs," she says. "Keeping animals in conditions where they're healthier is the only way to stop the overuse of antibiotics on farms. We need to stop using antibiotics across groups of animals to prevent sickness."

Devastating effects on local people

We also interviewed people from local communities to gauge their experiences and firsthand accounts. In Manitoba, citizens have organized to oppose Industrial hog operations because of the negative Impact they are having on the local environment.

Vicki Burns is with the group Hog Watch Manitoba and says they have been trying for years to get government attention on their concerns about the pig farms. She says there are toxic odours coming from the barn, impacting the communities and that too much manure gets into the local lake.

“It’s very challenging”, says Burns. “It’s hard to get any people in power to pay attention to the problems of industrial agriculture.”

Chickens crammed together on factory farm - World Animal Protection - Animals in farming

Chickens crammed together on a factory farm

Bill Massey is a local small scale pig farmer. He says, “I think in terms of antibiotic use, animal welfare, animal health, and just the ethics of this whole thing, I can hardly believe we can treat animals like this. When you take an intelligent animal like that and you put them in those kinds of conditions, you can imagine the stress animals are enduring.”

Following positive change in the EU

From January 2022, it will be illegal in the European Union to administer antibiotics across groups of farm animals to prevent disease, and it is important these laws are enforced, and other countries should follow suit.

We’re calling on the Canadian government to phase out the use of antibiotics to prevent disease across groups of farm animals and to ensure that remaining animal agriculture farms meet FARMS animal welfare standards at a minimum.

It is important to note that antibiotics are crucial to treat individual animals who become sick; but stopping the prophylactic use of antibiotics will also make them more effective when needed.

World Animal Protection also urges the Canadian government to help farmers transition to more sustainable and humane systems where animals don’t suffer and human health isn’t at risk.