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How can your vet help you to achieve sustainable production?

Simon Doherty, President of the BVA, talks about the motives behind the new BVA sustainability position statement and how vets should be working with producers to achieve sustainability goals.

3 May 2019, at 10:31am
simon doherty president of bva stands with arms folded next to a chicken
Simon Doherty, President of the BVA, is an advocate for sustainable practice

With the release of the BVA position statement on UK sustainable animal agriculture, we interviewed Simon Doherty, President of the BVA and advocate of sustainable agriculture, on the drive for change.

How has the attitude to sustainability changed in the veterinary profession?

When I qualified, there was still very much a feeling within the veterinary profession that we were an animal health profession. Welfare was often seen as a by-product of health. If you had good health, you probably had good wel­fare. But we know now that welfare is much more than just good health, so there has been a momentum shift that has brought welfare much higher up the agenda.

On top of that, there was a lot of talk about One Health and the idea that if you brought multidisciplinary teams together, you could find solutions to problems. Vets already embrace One Health in their day-to-day work. If you’re looking after a cow, there’s a relationship between that cow and the farmer, there’s a relationship between the cow and the vet, and there’s a relationship between the farmer and the vet. But there’s also a relationship between them and the environment.

If you have a sow that’s not quite right, and she’s not working at her full potential, then she’s having more of an environmental impact in terms of methane and carbon dioxide production and slurry production, etc. She may need antibiotics, and the antibiotics are going to make their way into the slurry, and back onto the land when the slurry is spread, and so on.

The sustainability position is about looking at that bigger picture instead of focusing on purely, “let’s ramp up produc­tivity!” Yes, we want to ramp up productivity, but not if we’re going to have an impact on welfare and the volume of anti­biotics we use. And not where it’s economically unviable.

What’s prompted the release of the BVA sustainability position statement now?

There is an EU One Health Platform which works at high-level policy, but with the UK’s One Health Coordination Group, established and currently chaired by BVA, we wanted to focus on relevant stakeholders in the UK and look at where One Health and sustainability are combined.

At the BVA, we will often refer back to our policy positions and we didn’t have policy positions on these areas. We had some policy positions on the welfare aspects, but we didn’t have something that would embrace the whole sustainabil­ity agenda. We put the working group together and developed the sustainability position to look at actions at several levels: the association, the practice and the individual.

What are the key messages for vets?

At the simplest level, it’s back-to-basics animal husbandry. Look after these animals well and they will be more productive. The knock-on effect of that is that you will probably use less antibiotics and improve animal welfare. Cow Signals [dairy cow management training] is one way for vets to better communicate information to farmers but looking at herd health planning and novel ways to increase the all-important touch points between vet and farmer is important. Getting vets and farmers to understand the value of that relationship can really make a difference. It’s not just about the money, it also has to be about the welfare. If you can deal with a problem before it happens, you’re thinking much more about preventative herd health management rather than reactive management when things go wrong.

It’s also about getting the right kind of information out there, and sometimes it is necessary to get vets to sit down and think about how they’re communicating with their farmers. Because otherwise, the information is coming from the farming press, or the person who lives on the next farm, and it is less trusted information.

Vet in biosecure boiler suit discusses herd health strategy with pig farmer next to pens of weaner pigs
The sustainability position is about looking at that bigger picture instead of focusing on purely, “let’s ramp up produc­tivity!”

Will the statement help the campaign to improve welfare at slaughter in the UK?

Part of the drive for creating this statement has been the activity – particularly on social media – of “more extreme” parts of the vegan community who are pushing a zero-animal diet. It’s not about vets keeping themselves in jobs; it’s about making sure that we’re addressing some of the anti-livestock claims in an evidence-based, well-researched fashion. An example of this is non-stun slaughter.

The Farm Quality Assured and the Choose Assured campaign was partly to make people more aware about our position around non-stunned slaughter. Michael Gove has told us categorically that there’s no chance he’ll be able to ban non-stunned slaughter. But in the absence of labelling and a complete ban, by buying food that is Farm Quality Assured, we can be sure that we are getting produce from animals that have been stunned before slaughter.

How can the sustainability agenda be embraced at a practice level?

The BVA is looking at sustainability in practice and this originated from a conversation we had with a veterinary anaesthetist. She was conscious that a lot of small animal practices were pumping out not insignificant amounts of chlorinated hydrocarbons, in the form of anaesthetic by-products, and they were leaving the practice building and going into the atmosphere. She was keen to look at ways to better utilise anaesthetic circuits that reduce the amount of these gases that are going out into the environment. Then she was looking at other elements in the practice like bottles of drugs: what you can recycle, what you can’t – proper waste segregation.

We are looking at the green initiative in companion animal practices as well. It’s that One Health relationship and just recognising what vets and vet nurses can do with clients, animals and the environment that they’re in. We have some interest in social prescribing, which is a concept of putting people out into green spaces and improving their well-being; a pet can be great companionship, but also there’s a driver there to get the owner out into the environment for a dog walk.

I think a lot of the environmental push has been seen in the wildlife sector. For a lot of areas, like plastics ending up in the environment, it shouldn’t just be the environmentalists that are talking about the issues. We’ve got a role to play in advising people about that. At the end of the day, veterinary practices will have injured hedgehogs brought in that have been caught up in bits of plastic from the environment.

We’re also encouraging practices to think: can we convince members of practice staff to take public transport to work? Can we make ourselves more accessible through public transport routes to our clients? And even starting to think about food procurement policy within the practice.

How can vets push the “less and better” approach?

If they’re doing any kinds of catering within the practice, it would be locally sourcing good, high welfare products. Right down to the individual level where we’re getting vets to think about, “how much meat am I eating in my diet?” Instead of importing cheap meat from other countries, we should be focused on locally produced, high quality, high welfare products that we champion in the UK. In terms of promoting that approach to others, it’s a tough one, and to be honest, I think we’re at the start of that journey. We’re at the point of encouraging vets to think about it themselves as opposed to being huge advocates right now.

Will new technology and innovation help boost agricultural sustainability in the UK?

It’s about embracing innovation in the right way. I think that vets need to think about how they can embrace innovation more; otherwise, our profession is going to get left behind.

One of the reasons robots have taken off is that economic drivers have changed herd dynamics. But a second aspect is connectivity. A farmer can use their smartphone and look up how much milk is in the milking tank in the parlour; they can see which cow has gone through; they can even see which cow needs to be held at the selection gate for pregnancy diagnosis or artificial insemination.

But how much engagement do vets have? Not a huge amount. A lot of this technology is being sold directly to the farmer. There’s a huge number of wearable devices now available for cattle. Those are generating huge amounts of data and, at the minute, are only made useful to the farmer. There’s a lot of really valuable information in there which could be of use to the vet to help the farmer and in turn, make farming more efficient and sustainable.

Just installing the technology by itself is not going to be a panacea. You need to be able to work the other elements into it. And that will apply to vaccines, genetics, diagnostic tests, etc. If they can be used appropriately, they can have a massive impact. If they are used inappropriately, then they will be a waste of money.

This article was originally featured in Veterinary Practice magazine.