The term ‘sustainable agriculture’ (NARETPA, 7 U.S.C. 3103) means an integrated system of plant and animal production practices having a site-specific application that will over the long-term achieve the following goals:
- Satisfy human food and fiber needs;
- Enhance environmental quality and the natural resource base upon which the agriculture economy depends;
- Make the most efficient use of nonrenewable resources and on-farm resources and integrate, where appropriate, natural biological cycles and controls;
- Sustain the economic viability of farm operations; and
- Enhance the quality of life for farmers and society as a whole.
The National Research Council Committee on Twenty-First Century Systems Agriculture states “that progress toward these goals will require robust systems which adapt to and continue to function in the face of stresses, are productive, use resources efficiently, and balance all four goals…They further state that if the U.S. is to maintain adequate resources to meet food, feed, fiber, and biofuel needs, progress toward meeting the four goals must be accelerated. This acceleration must be based on research that determines ways to reduce tradeoffs and enhance synergies among the four goals while managing risks associated with their pursuit” (USDA/NIFA, 2012).
Antibiotic use in the food animal industry has been shown to increase growth, efficiency, and safety while decreasing economic costs. Compared with these guidelines, antibiotic use in food animals is also productive, uses resources efficiently, and maintains resources to meet food needs. Lastly, antibiotic use in food animals is a perfect example of a research-based method that reduces tradeoffs and manages risks. Although there are some inherent risks in using antibiotics in the food animal industry, the risks and tradeoffs associated with removing them (disease spread, unsafe food supply, carcass contamination, etc) are far outweighed by the benefits of continuing responsible, carefully monitored use.
So, are antibiotics an essential part of “sustainable agriculture”? I believe so.
United States Department of Agriculture/National Institute of Food and Agriculture (USDA/NIFA). (2012). Agriculture and Food Research Initiative Competitive Grants Program. http://www.nifa.usda.gov/funding/rfas/pdfs/2013_afri_foundation.pdf