Joining forces, dairy farmers in the Netherlands and Uganda are learning from Indian experts about using medicinal herbs to prevent animal diseases and reduce the widespread reliance on antibiotics for livestock.
Many of us picture dairy farms with rolling green pastures and lazily grazing cows, but the vast majority of commercial dairy products come from intensive industrial farms optimized by modern technologies. Yet these “high-tech solutions” may also be the root of the industry’s main challenges.
A common problem on dairy farms—especially large-scale industrial farms—is mastitis, an udder infection that is responsible for 16.5 percent of dairy cattle deaths in the United States. In addition to shortening the cows’ lifespans, mastitis results in the production of lower-quality milk, with lower cheese yield and a shorter shelf life.
To address this and other health problems throughout the dairy industry, many farmers apply antibiotics and other anti-inflammatory drugs. According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, around 90 percent of dairy cows with mastitis in the United States are treated with these drugs. In many other countries, especially in the developing world, antibiotics are sold over the counter, and their use on dairy cows is not measured or recorded.
The most urgent problem related to antibiotic overuse is the development of drug resistance—when bacteria evolve to become stronger “superbugs” that are able to survive subsequent antibiotic applications. This resistance makes it increasingly difficult to cure bacterial infections in livestock as well as in humans, since many human medicines rely on the same types of drugs being used for livestock. Losing the effectiveness of antimicrobials renders many medical therapies increasingly risky, including organ transplantation and cancer chemotherapy, due to the danger of untreatable infection.
Meanwhile, virtually no new antibiotics have been discovered in nearly 30 years. To the concern of medical workers, recent discoveries in animal production chains show that the “last line of defense,” the antibiotic family of polymyxins, has been breached, meaning that some serious infections may not be treatable by any antibiotic currently available.
Antibiotic residues in food and milk also have health consequences for humans. In China, a widespread presence of veterinary antibiotic residues was detected in schoolchildren. Long-term exposure to these antibiotics, which may come from contaminated food or water, is connected to obesity. Some antibiotics, such as penicillin and sulfa drugs, also are known to cause allergies in humans, yet these drugs have been found in animal products due to legal or illegal use.
To address health risks, the government of the Netherlands announced in 2010 an ambitious goal to reduce the use of antibiotics in animal farming by 70 percent, compared with a 2009 baseline. To maintain the quality of the milk while also reducing antibiotic use, dairy farmers looked around the world for solutions. With the help of a Dutch non-governmental organization, Natural Livestock Farming, farmers found inspiration in India.
Dutch farmers are now tapping into the power of Ayurvedic medicinal herbs—an ancient holistic approach. During a visit to the Dutch botanical gardens, Indian experts found that 70 percent of the medicinal plant species needed were already available in the Netherlands, but had long been ignored.
Once revived, the ancient knowledge soon caught fire. By 2015, the Netherlands had achieved 83 percent of its antibiotics reduction goal. This is an impressive drop, particularly since the calculation also includes large-scale producers, who normally rely heavily on antibiotic drugs.
Indian farmers, veterinarians, and researchers have validated the effectiveness of some herbal prescriptions and applied them to cure calf diarrhea and to alleviate the symptoms of foot-and-mouth disease. A crimson paste of aloe vera and turmeric can even effectively prevent and treat sub-clinical mastitis.
Rethinking Drugs and Drug-intensive Agriculture
Herbal treatments offer a new mindset for health. Rather than simply replacing the one-shot mechanism of antibiotics, the Ayurvedic application of medicinal herbs (like that of Chinese traditional medicines) acts via a more multi-faceted mechanism, centered on restoring balance and regaining the body’s own resilience to disease. Farmers are turning to medicinal plants in recognition of this underexploited and undervalued holistic approach.
Industrialized, factory-like dairy farms are at one end of the spectrum of what agriculture can become, and has become, in many parts of the developed world—including the Netherlands and the United States. As some of these farmers see the sustainability dead-end looming and turn back to holistic agricultural management, they are influencing those in the developing world who are deciding which agricultural development models to follow.
Sharing the Knowledge and Vision
In Uganda, antibiotic use is minimally regulated, which, combined with a struggling local health system, poses a health threat. In addition, pesticides are used increasingly in dairy farming. To boost milk yield, native Ankole cows were cross-bred with imported Holstein-Friesian species (the iconic black-and-white cows). However, the crossbreeds are not adapted to local environments and are prone to parasites and diseases that are so serious that local farmers have to spray pesticides on the cows. The pesticides are not only toxic to humans, but also kill the ecosystem’s food chain from the bottom up.
Some Ugandan farmers proposed stopping outdoor grazing and moving the animals indoors, away from pests, to reduce pesticide use. Dutch dairy farmers, having witnessed the loss of biodiversity in their own country due to industrial indoor animal farming, intervened by sharing their experience and learnings with their Ugandan peers. After visiting Dutch farms and inviting Indian experts to Uganda, some Ugandan farmers have started to preserve local breeds and to apply medicinal herbs to build herds that are more resilient.
If successfully implemented, this holistic approach can reduce the cost and time spent to attend to the cows, especially the care-demanding crossbreeds. Farmers and ecosystems can be protected against pesticides, and health-threatening antibiotic residues can be reduced or eliminated.
The Future of Farming
Moving away from the reductionist approach of antibiotic use and industrial agriculture, holistic methods can expand to broad aspects of agricultural well-being. Improving farm management, strategically using local breeds, optimizing product quality control, and implementing practical incentives are all indispensable in making healthy dairy systems work. At the core of this holistic approach is the understanding and recognition of the multi-functionality of agriculture—not just as a method to produce food, but also as an activity that affects the interconnected ecosystem and human health in a profound way.
Veterinary training and research will need to follow. According to Katrien van ‘t Hooft with Natural Livestock Farming, Dutch veterinarians visiting a farmer’s cottage today would likely be surprised to find a cabinet full of medicinal herbs, particularly in a developed country. Veterinary training today needs to catch up with new knowledge and practice, some of which increasingly reflects older, time-honored practices.
Another challenge, says van ‘t Hooft, is to make available a cheap and fast technology that can easily detect multiple drug residues in the milk, so that an affordable quality control and drug-free incentive system can be built. It is technologies like this, serving the need of restoring a human-nature balance, that provide real solutions for a better farming future.
Wanqing Zhou is a research associate in the Food and Agriculture Program at the Worldwatch Institute.