Researchers take an interdisciplinary approach to effectively communicate the science for a nuanced issue
Image Credit: Edwin Remsberg
University of Maryland (UMD) researchers are leading a multi-institution team to support farmers by understanding antibiotic resistance on beef and dairy farms, the effects on the environment, and potential high temperature treatment options to mitigate these effects. To further serve the farming community, researchers are partnering with farmers through Extension activities to communicate the science behind antibiotic resistance, identifying current perceptions and concerns for their animals, farms, and the environment.
Stephanie Lansing, associate professor in Environmental Science & Technology, is the principal investigator for this innovative $1.2 million grant from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) due to her unique expertise as both an agricultural engineer and Extension educator across Maryland. The multi-faceted project will have four major components: examining the fate of antibiotics on beef and dairy farms, assessing mitigation strategies for antimicrobial resistance, gathering information on current perceptions about antibiotics and resistance, and developing a communication strategy to discuss best management strategies and research findings with the farming and food processing community, focusing on how farm viability, animal welfare, and environmental stewardship intersect.
UMD, Cornell University, and researchers at the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service (ARS) across the Northeast and Maryland will be examining the fate of antibiotics in dairy farms, while the University of Nebraska researchers and Extension associates and Lincoln USDA-ARS partners will be focusing on the perspective of beef cattle ranching. Lansing will use her expertise to help assess new high-temperature manure treatment techniques and their effectiveness in mitigating antimicrobial resistance in dairy manure by comparing to high-temperature wastewater treatment digesters at DC WATER. University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC) will conduct social science research into perceptions around antimicrobial resistance, with Extension faculty from all institutions helping to identify key stakeholders to best serve farmers and food processors. Finally, Ithaca College will be designing and producing communication materials for a non-agricultural target audience, with a unique focus on outreach and Extension.
USDA-ARS will be assisting with detecting antibiotics in laboratory and quantifying antimicrobial resistant genes and bacteria, while DC WATER will be providing use of their pilot thermal hydrolysis anaerobic digestion system, which breaks down sewage waste to produce methane gas, which is then converted into electric energy. This high-heat, high-pressure process has the potential to reduce antimicrobial resistance in the environment by putting manure and bedding waste material through high temperature treatment methods, while also producing sustainable energy. According to DC WATER, their current DC-based digester project reduces greenhouse gas emissions by 50,000 tons per year, equivalent to 100 million miles driven by conventional cars. This type of technology could be greatly beneficial in the agricultural industry for emission reductions, while reducing antimicrobial resistance in the environment.
Lansing explains, “With the thermal hydrolysis anaerobic digestion system currently being used by DC WATER we want to know: can we take more innovative techniques from municipal wastewater treatment and apply them to agriculture?”
This project combines environmental and agricultural sciences, agricultural engineering, microbiology, food safety, animal and environmental welfare, social science, and communications work with a major outreach effort to ensure that concerns are addressed and the research being conducted is clearly understood by those who will directly use it.
“So many aspects affect antimicrobial resistance,” explains Lansing. “It is possible for bacteria to spontaneously develop resistance through gene transfer without even coming into contact with the antibiotic that it is resistant to. So, there can be cases where antimicrobial resistance is evident in a farm setting, yet, animals in that farm environment have not been exposed to that antibiotic. How do you convey that concept when there isn’t always a direct link between what is being used and what is seen in the environment?”
Carol Jennings, director of Park Media Lab at Ithaca College, oversees Park Productions, a student-staffed and award-winning media production company designed to give students professional experience in their field. She will be using the data collected on mitigation strategies and perceptions of antimicrobial resistance to develop a communications strategy and produce media products tailored to non-agricultural stakeholders.
“We are very excited to be a part of this project,” says Jennings. “Close collaboration at those very early stages between research and communications is very unique, and that is something I have to give the Maryland team a lot of credit for. When communication is involved from the start, you not only know what questions to ask, but how to interpret the answers to make a much more effective product.”
Park Productions will work closely with Extension specialists collaborating across the project to effectively assess and survey the population and ensure an effective communications strategy. At UMD, this work will be done in close concert with Rohan Tikekar, assistant professor of Nutrition and Food Science, who will bring his expertise to the table as an Extension specialist working with food processors on food safety. He will help ensure that messaging will resonate with stakeholders in the food processing industry, particularly for food safety and sanitation practices that play a role in antimicrobial resistance.
“Involving stakeholders at both the farm and food processing level is different and important,” says Tikekar. “Food processors are put under a lot of pressure and want to produce safe food for us, so they are very focused on killing bacteria. We want to be careful with our messaging to make sure we make the best recommendations, but to an audience that doesn’t necessarily have a science background.”
Extension is a key part of this research in every aspect, from reaching stakeholders and analyzing perceptions and misperceptions to developing appropriate messaging to communicate the science, best practices, and mitigation strategies. “Extension has been so successful historically because of that personal relationship with growers. That trust and personal connection is so important to being successful, so personal engagement is going to be essential for these stakeholders,” says Tikekar.
“This isn’t just innovation in a vacuum,” says Lansing. “This is innovation that will be conveyed in a digestible format that addresses major misconceptions. This is truly holistic science, reaching out first and tailoring the science to stakeholders and their needs so they are involved from the beginning.”
Lansing says this is a complex issue with a lot of nuance, and she is excited by the work. “There are new regulations for farmers, and the farming community understands and follows those regulations, but they also need to treat their sick animals just like anyone would treat their own sick pet. We want to find a balance between animal welfare and environmental stewardship, and we want to do this with the stakeholders involved to convey a complicated topic in a clear format that helps farmers while reducing potential resistance.”
This work is supported by the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture, Agriculture and Food Research Initiative project 2018-68003-27467.