Real problems, real alternatives: How eubiotics hold the key to the effective and sustainable replacement of AGPs

According to the World Resources Institute, the Earth’s population will swell to 9.7 billion by 2050 and will require 70% more calories compared to 2006. This nutritional demand needs to be met by productivity increases in crop and animal farming industries. Used at sub-therapeutic doses for growth promotion, antibiotics remain a cornerstone of animal productivity in many countries. They also contribute to the alarming global rise of anti-microbial resistance (AMR). How will animal production wean itself off the use of antibiotics in the face of growing societal concern over the dangers of AMR?

Dr. David Nickell, Vice President Sustainability at DSM Nutritional Products, Animal Nutrition & Health, outlines DSM’s approach to tackling AMR while meeting the rising demand for nutritious, affordable animal protein.

The key role of animal protein in feeding the world

Sustainable food systems typically focus on ensuring accessibility to safe, affordable and balanced nutrition. They seek to achieve this within natural resource boundaries by increasing productivity while simultaneously reducing food loss and waste and fostering systems circularity. In the face of a rapidly rising global population, the World Resources Institute predicts that by 2050 the planet will need to produce 70% more calories, from both vegetable and animal sources, compared to 2006. Over the course of many years, farming has substantially increased productivity levels, ensuring access to affordable, protein-dense nutrition for billions worldwide. Animal protein plays a key role in this, and is considered by leading health and nutrition organizations as an important part of a balanced diet. To play its part in delivering sustainable food systems, animal protein production must itself be sustainable. For this to happen, alternatives must be found to the current dependence on antibiotics.

The rise of AMR

Productivity in animal production has been advanced by many innovations and changes in farming practices over the years, from selective breeding programs to more tailored nutrition. One contributory factor has been the use of antibiotics in low dosages.  The desired effect has been to reduce gut health issues in farmed animals, maintaining a more balanced gut flora and leading in turn to improved growth rates and productivity. The use of antibiotic growth promotors (AGPs) has, however, been a cause of concern for many years in numerous countries worldwide. There is now a significant body of evidence that substantiates the link between the misuse and over-use of antibiotics in animal production and the spread of anti-microbial resistance (AMR) in the wider population.  The European Medicines Agency (EMA) and European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) also made it clear in 2017 that reducing the use of antimicrobials in food-producing animals and replacing them where possible is essential for the future of animal and public health.  It is not only the dire warnings issued by inter-governmental bodies that are pushing for change; a new approach is also demanded by the major big brand companies of the service sector and consumers alike.  The rise of AMR and the speed of change is seen as a major financial risk for the animal industries by the investor community.

However, the growth of AMR is not solely attributable to practices in animal production, nor can it be combated by the agriculture sector alone. The improper use of prescription antibiotics in human medicine has also been a major factor in the growth of AMR. So too have been inadequate manufacturing standards in parts of the antibiotic industry, which have resulted in the discharge of active ingredients into the environment, especially in parts of India and China.

Concern over the rise of AMR led to the commissioning of the O’Neill Report Antimicrobial Resistance: Tackling a crisis for the health and wealth of nations, which was published in 2014. The O’Neill Report  has made clear that a new boundary – that of widespread anti-microbial resistance – will be crossed by 2050. It is projected that AMR will account for the deaths of 10 million people per year by 2050, becoming the single largest cause of death, overtaking even cancer. Today it is estimated that AMR is responsible for the deaths of 700 thousand people per year. It is against this background that the use of antibiotics by humans and animals has come under enormous scrutiny.  Rapid counter-measures to introduce alternative, integrated health management programs are therefore under way, and this is happening nowhere faster than in the animal farming industry.

Models for successful reduction of antibiotic use

Approximately 50–70% of the world’s antibiotics deemed medically important are used in the livestock sector, but their use varies by country and by species of animal farmed. On average, usage rates are typically highest in swine, followed by poultry and ruminants. However, rates within these industries vary by country and farming company, with some no longer using AGPs or making widespread prophylactic use of antibiotics. The Danish swine industry is a leading example of very low antibiotic use, as is the Norwegian salmon industry. In the case of Denmark, this transformation was driven mainly by changes in husbandry practices, improved biosecurity, integrated and coordinated health management programs, and the use of functional feed ingredients known as eubiotics (from the Greek eu meaning good or healthy and bios meaning life, and used in the feed industry to describe a healthy balance of the microbiota in the gastrointestinal tract). In the case of Norway, the advent of fish vaccines, in combination with coordinated area health management programs, has reduced antibiotic use to the bare minimum – resulting in an industry which has the lowest level of antibiotic use per ton of meat produced. Other countries, such as the Netherlands, have made substantial reductions, whereas countries such as Spain continue with relatively high usage. Industry commentators suggest those countries with less competitive swine and poultry industries will probably remain relatively high users of antibiotics and that they may struggle to make the reductions that are being widely called for by consumers.

The regulatory environment

Antibiotics are an indispensable tool for the treatment of animals suffering from disease. For the welfare of a sick animal, the timely and correct use of antibiotics prescribed by a vet is critical, as is prescription of antibiotics by a physician in the context of human medicine. Antibiotics are often used prophylactically to prevent the outbreak of a disease in a herd or flock as soon as indications of a health issue arise. This intervention is important to maintain the good health and welfare of a herd or flock and prevent the mass outbreak of contagious disease. However, in some cases, sub-therapeutic prophylactic use has been deployed unnecessarily, and this can foster the build-up of AMR. Having banned the use of AGPs in 2006, the EU Commission has recently limited the prophylactic use of antibiotics in farmed animals. The British Poultry Council, which represents 90% of the UK’s broiler production, adopted a voluntary ban on prophylactic use in 2017. The major focus has been on reducing the use of AGPs across species, and in some countries, this has been supported by a complete ban on their use. This trend is seen increasingly across the globe, with the EU having led the way back in 2006, followed more recently by Indonesia and South Korea, while the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) discourages AGP use. More recently, China has announced its intention to eliminate antibiotic use in livestock feed by 2020, with the program being piloted on 100 designated farms.

Eubiotics as alternatives to antibiotics

Like many countries making the move away from antibiotic use in animal production, the Chinese livestock industry will need to adopt alternative new technologies such as eubiotics and feed enzymes, as well as tailoring nutrition to the life-stage of the animal to ensure improved gut health and functionality. It has been estimated by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) that the overall cost of removing antibiotics equates to between 1.3% and 3.0% of the global value of meat production. However, the elimination of unnecessary antibiotic use has also led to restructuring of the farming industry, on account of the investments in new hardware and husbandry practices that are needed for this, which in turn has resulted in greater industry consolidation. The Danish swine industry started to reduce the use of AGPs as early as 1995 and then removed them completely by 2000, six years ahead of the EU ban in 2006. The industry grew 47% in volume from 1992 to 2008, with about 85% of the meat produced exported. This indicates that Denmark remained competitive while removing AGPs. Farm closures did occur, however. Those farms with good management survived, and total antibiotic use declined by more than 50%, down to 48mg per kg of meat produced. The implementation of improved husbandry, veterinary controls and alternative nutritional solutions including organic acids and probiotics helped make this change possible. The Danish swine industry continues to drive down antibiotic use while operating in a highly competitive global export market.

Eubiotics such as organic acids, phytogenics (natural plant extracts), probiotics and prebiotics are essential nutritional components that enable the industry to reduce its antibiotic use. DSM has been a leading innovator and pioneer in this field and has many years of experience working with customers to help them make the necessary change. Over the years, we have developed very effective eubiotic solutions for doing away with AGPs and reducing the prophylactic use of antibiotics. Our aim is to help tackle AMR, a major societal issue, by helping animal production to switch swiftly and smoothly to antibiotic-free diets.

Functional nutrition

We do this through our broad portfolio of functional nutrition, which we can tailor to the needs of the individual customer. For example, building on the principles of improved gut functionality by understanding the interaction of diet on gut health combined with Optimum Vitamin Nutrition™(OVN™), which ensures that the animal receives the correct intake of vitamins to maintain optimal physiological functionality, we have clearly demonstrated the effectiveness of Crina® Poultry Plus as an alternative to AGPs in broilers. Crina® Poultry Plus is an innovative combination of benzoic acid and specific phytogenic compounds which, in over 20 field trials, has demonstrated that at an inclusion level of 300ppm, a 2.6% reduction in food conversion ratio (FCR) and a 2.1% increase in weight gain is achievable, making it a very cost-effective solution. Importantly, it is very efficacious against potentially pathogenic bacteria such as Salmonella, E. coli, Campylobacter and C. perfringens (all of which are a concern in the meat value chain), without affecting the beneficial bacteria in the gut.

Likewise, a large and ever-growing proportion of the EU swine industry routinely uses VevoVitall® (benzoic acid) for improved gut functionality in the wake of the 2006 AGP ban. In numerous commercial field trials, VevoVitall® included in piglet diets at 0.5% consistently improved weight gain by more than 10% and reduced FCR by more than 2.5%.  It reduced diarrhea treatment by half and veterinarian costs by 50% – a significant saving per piglet. Such proven technology is now well established in countries such as Denmark, where antibiotic use is among the lowest.

With the heightened focus on, and adoption of, such technologies, there is an even greater drive for new molecule discovery and novel, alternative solutions to non-therapeutic antibiotic use. At DSM, we have jointly developed with our alliance partner Novozymes a highly innovative feed technology that targets broken bacterial cell walls in the gut, thereby unlocking the hidden potential of gastro-intestinal  functionality. Balancius™ preferentially breaks down the bacterial cell debris ubiquitous in all animals and reduces its accumulation on the gut wall, thereby improving nutrient absorption, digestibility and feed efficiency, and consistently reducing the feed conversion ratio (FCR) by 3%.  Economically, this is highly valuable and has a major impact in offsetting the costs of AGP removal from broiler diets, making the transition to antibiotic-free production a cost-effective reality.

Lower costs, greater efficiency

The positive impact of eubiotics on animal production costs is making sub-therapeutic antibiotic use increasingly redundant, and thus helping to address the rise of AMR. Importantly, the ability of eubiotics to maintain or improve feed efficiency delivers substantial gains in sustainability, such as reducing indirect and direct GHG emissions, diminishing nitrogen flows to the environment, and reducing the amount of crop land used in the production of animal feed. For example, based on the performance gains of using Balancius™, the inclusion of this additive in all broiler diets in Latin America and North America would result in a saving of 4.2 million tons of CO2 equivalents per year.

There are multiple challenges facing animal production if it is to grow sustainably within the planet’s boundaries and produce affordable meat, milk, fish and eggs for a growing and ever more demanding population. The major societal issue of AMR is a boundary that cannot and must not be crossed.  Eubiotics play a role in keeping us within this boundary. They are a key to effective and sustainable replacement of AGPs and the sub-therapeutic prophylactic use of antibiotics.

Innovating for change

DSM recognizes that AMR is an issue of global concern. We advocate the replacement of AGPs and reduction in the prophylactic use of antibiotics through the deployment of alternative nutritional solutions and innovations combined with farm and health management in close collaboration with our customers and the value chain. We support the responsible use of antibiotics to ensure the health and welfare of animals and believe that antibiotics should only be used under veterinarian supervision and in compliance with national authority approvals. DSM will continue to apply its leading scientific knowledge and market insights to further invest in its portfolio, innovating to accelerate the pivotal transformation needed to combat AMR while addressing the UN Sustainability Goals 2, 3 and 12.

Science-based animal nutrition solutions 

DSM exists to create brighter lives for all. This starts with our customers, without whom we would not have a business. We offer them the world’s most comprehensive, science-based animal nutrition solutions, intelligently scaled to solve the sustainability and commercial challenges we all face in transforming the way we feed the world.

The world needs new pathways in sustainable animal protein, and DSM is at the forefront of that quest.

Published on

04 September 2020

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David Nickell

VP Sustainability and Business Solutions

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David Nickell

VP Sustainability and Business Solutions

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