blog 18 Jan 2018
– Andrea Butcher – University of Exeter

We – the field team – arrive at the village of Akra shortly after 9am. The village is divided in two by a road-cum-dam. On one side sit shrimp ponds fed by high saline river tidal flows; on the other sit ponds fed by saline water combined with fresh groundwater [1]. The majority of farmers here have finished their shrimp harvest and are moving to rice cultivation for the winter season. The rice being cultivated in fields on the high saline side does not grow as well and looks quite dry. We are led to a gazebo in the village with farmers and curious villagers gathered around. The NGO representative introduces our project whilst the data enumerators prepare the surveys. A research assistant translates as the NGO representative talks to those farmers taking part in our survey. The villagers fire questions at him: “how do we stop our shrimp dying?” He fires questions back: “how do you think? What is required for successful production?” “Oxygen” some reply, “sufficient water” say others. They seem unconvinced by the representative’s suggestions for improving their technique. They know how to farm —the problem is their techniques are becoming less effective.

“Given these circumstances, will antibiotic application come to be considered the quick and easy solution for managing disease? Our research suggests that in situations of increasing economic and environmental precarity, resistance pathways are trodden through shifting and interconnecting human, non-human animal, environmental and microbial terrains. Successful AMR interventions will need to accommodate social, economic and material realities, along with the diverse geographies of human, landscape and microbe interrelations.”

Rather than asking how antibiotics enable livelihoods in situations of increasing precarity, our research asks whether it is possible to enable livelihoods without antibiotics in precarious situations, and what is required to achieve this?

As the role of aquatic environments in the emergence, persistence and distribution of AMR is increasingly understood (Taylor et al 2011), we turn our attention to crustacean aquaculture-for-export practices in Bangladesh. Aquaculture is the fastest growing food production system globally. In order to meet the demands of a growing global population, production systems have been adapted and intensified, resulting in routine antibiotic use and the emergence of lethal pathogens—including some that are highly lethal for shrimp.

Bangladesh’s dominant farming systems are different—a result of diverse historical contingencies. The southwest coastal region is a mosaic of some 200,000 extensive aquaculture ponds characterised by low stocking densities, feed cultured in the ponds, few inputs and little in the way of medicines, including antibiotics. The majority of farmers practice polyculture (stocking of multiple fish and crustacean species) methods and often combine their farming with rice paddy production. Extensive systems are lauded by sustainable development lobbyists for their organic, environmentally sustainable practices, but nevertheless, Bangladesh’s shrimp and prawn farmers face a high disease burden that threatens their crops and their livelihoods.

A strong network of external financial support and local NGO activity works to improve aquaculture through the delivery of technological innovations. But the language of improved farming changes depending on who you talk to. Some organisations promote greater intensification and domestication of the farming system, promoting artificial environments and stringent operating procedures to keep pathogens at the pond barrier. They provide funds to expand hatchery technology to produce specific pathogen free (SPF) shrimp seed—a captive breeding and domestication programme that involves the genetic improvement of wild-caught healthy shrimp mothers, whose spawn are nursed and sold to farmers. Other international NGOs encourage the small-holding model, offering finances and technical expertise to support organic adaptations and pathogen management strategies to improve pond microbiomes. Some interventions combine aspects of both methods. No external organisation promotes antibiotics as a strategy for managing disease.

Certain farming communities embrace interventions more enthusiastically than others, although those praising the benefits of SPF shrimp seed and the application of probiotics to improve pond and animal health tend to have better management strategies – and more economic power. Other farming communities, for example in those in the high saline district of Satkira, choose to replicate natural habitats as far as possible, using homemade probiotics of rice husk, molasses and yeast, and preferring to stock with wild shrimp fry as they say that SPF spawned shrimp are unable to adapt to their local pond conditions. Once again, no farming community favours the use of antibiotics.

Yet many suffer the burden of disease. Why are Bangladeshi shrimp and prawn farmers facing this situation?

A combination of social and material determinants potentially produce environments that allow disease to express within the ponds. The high volume of ponds discharging untreated cultured water into the environment facilitates pathogen transmission between ponds. Climate shocks (droughts, floods and cyclones) and industrial damning upstream impact water flow and quality. For a variety of reasons, the majority of farmers surveyed struggled to maintain the required water depth. Pathogens and antibiotic resistance may enter ponds with hatchery reared shrimp and prawn seed, as hatcheries are sites where antibiotics are more likely to be routinely used, and financial support for routine testing of seed for pathogens remains lacking. Industrial, clinical and agricultural waste contain heavy metals, detergents and pollutants that can select for AMR, contributing to the disease ecologies of hydrological systems. Shrimp and prawn—some that have begun life as artificially produced seed—are now made to live and relate to a bewildering network of agents: hostile pond environments, polluted water, new probiotics, new medicines, land management systems, non-cohering technical interventions, and food safety regulations.

Intervention instructors insist upon rigorous implementation of operating procedures: “You need to do everything right if you are to have successful production…” one fisheries expert and project manager tells me, “…not just cherry pick the parts of the procedures that you trust most, or that you can afford”. However, our research suggests that interventions are not necessarily compatible with small-scale farming methods, increasingly hostile aquatic environments, and the social and material abilities of farmers to respond to disease. What began in the 1970s as farming adaptations to improve income and lift farmers out of poverty has now become a precarious livelihood. If production is successful, a homestead can make good money. But the emergence of new diseases and an increasingly unpredictable and hostile environment constrains innovation, forcing farmers to tweak production strategies and culture methods with the knowledge and the material resources available to them.

Given these circumstances, will antibiotic application come to be considered the quick and easy solution for managing disease? Our research suggests that in situations of increasing economic and environmental precarity, resistance pathways are trodden through shifting and interconnecting human, non-human animal, environmental and microbial terrains. Successful AMR interventions will need to accommodate social, economic and material realities, along with the diverse geographies of human, landscape and microbe interrelations.

[1] (although the Bangladeshi government limits how much fresh water farmers can use for aquaculture).