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Antibiotics and Agriculture: A Forum for Common Ground

*By Nick Kelley

On November 22nd and 23rd about 70 people gathered at the Minnesota Department of Agriculture and Minnesota Department of Health's Freeman Building for "Antibiotics & Agriculture: Finding Common Ground Forum Series."

The goal was to bring together key stakeholders and come to "common ground" on the issue of antibiotic usage in agriculture. This issue has fascinated me for a while, so I was excited to be able to participate. After all, it's a very contemporary public health issue and I believe antibiotic resistance is going to be a defining challenge for our generation.

The underlying theme of the forum was focused on how to maximize the benefits of antibiotics while minimizing their perils. This is a paradox; every time an antibiotic is used there is a risk of resistance developing (a peril). That risk, albeit small, is dependent on how the antibiotic is used.

How and why antibiotics are used in agriculture is a thorny subject with lots of grey areas. These grey areas were front and center during the forum and resulted in lots of passionate discussion. Passionate discussions can happen anywhere, it's what you do with them that set your forum apart.

Ralph Jacobson from the Leaders Toolbox provided a set of tools for using the passion on this topic to come to some resolutions. He provided two tools to the conference participants that provided a framework for thinking about this issue and others we are going to face. The most useful tool was to point out that we are dealing with a paradox. Unlike most of the problems we are used to dealing with, in which there is a right and a wrong, a paradox does not have a right answer. This was profound. By identifying this as a paradox and noting there is not a right answer it changed the dynamic of the forum. It was no longer an intellectual challenge to prove a point, it became a challenge to find common ground.

Almost everyone that came to this forum had an idea on how to fix this problem; pointing out it was a paradox forced everyone to recognize that solutions will be more elusive. Having this perspective on such a massive issue is hard, but it puts you into a frame of mind that allows for common ground to be found.

I left the forum with some optimism that some of the suggestions if followed up and acted upon could result in solutions to this paradox. The real question now becomes do we have the time to do the necessary follow up--which may take years to enable action on this paradox--or will it become a "simple problem" in which antibiotics cease to be effective? I am not sure there is a tool for making these kinds of decisions.

*Nick Kelley is a member of the Center for Integrative Leadership's Student Leadership Team and served as a facilitator at the Antibiotics and Agriculture forum in November. This is his personal reflection of the event:

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