Applying the Best Evidence is Never Easy
As VetSalus launches into mission delivery mode, it is important that we clearly communicate the principles upon which our work is based. This article presents a summary of the precepts and assumptions that VetSalus consultants will apply when advising or working on projects.
Fundamentally, VetSalus is committed to applying the basic principles of One Health to its work in food production from healthy animals, particularly in the areas of animal welfare, antimicrobial usage and sustainable farming. The principles of One Health, as laid down by the One Health Commission are clear:
“One Health is the collaborative effort of multiple professionals, together with related disciplines and institutions — working locally, nationally, and globally — towards optimal health and wellbeing for people, domestic animals, wildlife, plants, and our environment.”
It is becoming increasingly recognised that veterinarians have a key role to play in bringing these principles of One Health to fruition. Veterinary clinicians and consultants are uniquely positioned when advances in science and technology need to be applied to the One Health mission.
Finding the Best Evidence-Based Science
One of the cornerstones upon which VetSalus is built is the need to apply the best evidence-based science to projects upon which we are working. This is very rarely easy: sometimes it is by no means clear where the best science sits because the research work to date is inconclusive or hasn’t yet been done. On other occasions, the best scientific solutions will need to be phased in gradually because of other constraints such as economics.
All science is based on hypotheses that have been tested and adjusted in a peer reviewed environment. This is a demanding and disciplined process and the output is often technical in nature and difficult to comprehend. Modern media channels thrive on simple facts and graphics; complex scientific articles do not sell newspapers! This is never more obvious than in the area of sustainable agriculture where the stories that run well are often focused on easy targets like eating less red meat or dairy. In the complex interactions that link climate change and sustainable agriculture, the best science is often difficult to find. This is why experienced veterinary consultants, working in this confused transition zone, are essential.
Only extreme climate change deniers will deny that world temperatures are rising in line with increasing levels of carbon dioxide, and that most of this rise is based on the post war increases of industrial production and the increasing energy demands of transportation and residential needs. (For more information, see the following reports; Average Temperature Anomaly, Carbon dioxide emissions by sector or source, Annual total CO₂ emissions by region). It is clear that, while the contributions made by other important greenhouse gases such as methane and nitrous oxide, certainly cannot be ignored (with the former being closely linked to agricultural systems), carbon dioxide still represents 75% of greenhouse gas emissions and has by far the longest duration of impact and so must remain the primary target. We essentially need to decarbonise our lifestyles, and so, balancing the complex needs of One Health and sustainable agriculture must be placed into a planetary scale and context, where the consumption of luxury goods and expensive holidays, or even that next bowl of locally produced rice, all generate a significant carbon footprint.
Our World in Data Reports
In tandem with a changing climate is a rapidly expanding population. A quote from the 2015 VetFutures report illustrates this fact well:
“By 2050, the world’s population is expected to grow to 9.6 billion (United Nations, 2013), and, based on current consumption patterns, food production would have to increase by 70% in order to feed the extra mouths (Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, 2009), and demand for meat protein is projected to double.”
Food production and climate change
The World Resources Institute has similarly estimated that by 2050, food production will need to increase by 69% compared to 2006 levels. Farming went through a phenomenal green revolution in the mid 20th century, in which agricultural outputs more than doubled. This surge in production was based upon advances in technology and disease control but also generated increased use of pesticides, fertilisers and antibiotics.
It appears that what is now required is a second ‘greener’ revolution, where agricultural outputs must continue to increase but where the methods and systems that rely on the application of many pesticides and fertilisers are significantly reduced.
This transformational change represents a significant challenge for agriculture. When the new constraints of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and limiting environmental damage are added in, the problem becomes one of staggering proportions, whether related to arable or animal farming.
The Food Gap: "Taking into account a growing population and shifting diets, the world will need to produce 69 percent more food calories in 2050 than we did in 2006." Source: World Resources Institute
One controversial debate centres around the relative contributions of animals and plants to greenhouse gas emission. This is a very complicated topic with extreme and often very emotional views being projected by both camps. For example, one recent paper from workers at the University of Oxford, categorically shows that methane produced by ruminants in the UK is not causing global warming. The authors of this paper contend that it is not the size of emissions from livestock that matter but the warming impact of those emissions. By focusing on the 100 year global warming potential of greenhouse gases (GWP100), scientists tend to focus more on the volume of emissions and less on the warming potential of those emissions. Methane has a much shorter lived impact, being broken down in about a decade; the primary greenhouse gas targets remain carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide.
VetSalus believes that the production of animal protein by farming, whether extensively or intensively, will remain a very important contributor to human nutrition for the foreseeable future, even if the current level of consumption in the western world declines.
Over half of agricultural land is not suitable for growing arable crops. The science in this area is only just beginning to catch up with the debate. There is conflicting research about the value of dairy products, the sustainability of vegan diets and the necessity for the complex nutrition that meat products provide; these will require an investment in further science to fully evaluate.
Man has evolved over several million years of hunter gathering into an omnivore. A simple analysis based on comparative anatomy (in which vets are of course well trained) shows that we are not obligate carnivores (like a cat), but neither are we fully adapted plant-eaters (like a ruminant.) We, like the pig, are mono-gastric omnivores, and while it remains the right of any individual to refuse or choose to eat certain types of food, there is currently very limited (and conflicting) scientific evidence that supports the total cessation of animal farming as a strategy that would significantly impact on climate change. Indeed in many areas of the world, animals remain a critical part of rotational farming, where the manure they produce this year ensures that next year’s crops thrive.
However, having said this, VetSalus is clear that there are numerous improvements that can be made in efficiency and sustainability within every livestock system and as veterinary consultants, our primary focus is to contribute to these improvements. The application of the VetSalus mission inevitably leads to ongoing improvements in animal management, to the reduction in the emission of greenhouse gases and to limiting the use of antibiotics in farming systems.
VetSalus is certain that the only hope of meeting this increased global demand for food is by improved methods of production, better genetics and better control of diseases.
VetSalus is being developed to globally deliver improved animal health and assist in the development of sustainable agriculture. As consultants working at this cutting edge, however, we do recognise that this will not be easy.
The importance of animal welfare
One other fundamental of VetSalus’ activity is based on the steady improvement of animal welfare. In recent years there has been some significant research in this area as farming systems progress from the basics of the five freedoms, towards ensuring that all farmed animals have a life worth living and a ‘good death’. But even this can be complicated! Recent examples of the complexity of this debate have seen New Zealand dairy farmers re-evaluating winter grazing strategies in the face of welfare concerns, while in the UK there are advocates for increasing extensive free range farming. The debate on whether permanent pasture-based systems or 365-day intensive housing of livestock is largely irrelevant. When done well, both can lead to the production of wholesome food from healthy animals.
The challenge is to ensure that, whatever the farming system, it is applied consistently well so that animal welfare is never compromised, while meeting the needs of sustainability and One Health.
But there is one more important cornerstone to consider; farming, whether arable or animal based, is not a charitable activity. Whatever the constraints and changes introduced by politicians, the economics must continue to add up for the food producer.
Farmers must be able to make a reasonable profit, some of which will then be re-invested in the next technological advance towards better production and sustainability.
The alternative is that less food will be produced and the world will become increasingly hungry. And in the economic realm, VetSalus also recognises that wealth inequality and food insecurity typically go hand in hand. Indeed, the converse is true: that animal welfare and food safety is seen as a luxury that most of the planet cannot afford.
The ultimate target is very clear: a carbon neutral planet inhabited by a fully-fed population, who all enjoy access to similar food quality, quantity and food safety and production standards, whose food is produced in an environmentally sustainable way, that does not negatively impact upon animal welfare and with reducing usage of antimicrobials and pesticides.
That’s a tall order, particularly as we need to achieve it by 2050 - or preferably, even sooner. Balancing these complex issues is not assisted by journalists who simply reproduce the loudest stories; we need background education in the serious science of the day and additional help in explaining complex, science based solutions. The current media focus on maligning aspects of grass based farming is not helpful, particularly when it demonstrates a naive western bias: in some areas of the world, including much of Asia and Africa, manure produced by cattle and buffalo is critical to food production. It is also a valuable resource for European organic farms.
But all is not lost! Great progress is already being made by VetSalus consultants and others working in these fields. Look, for example, at the response of UK farmers to the need to reduce antimicrobials, as recently reported by RUMA. A 53% reduction in the sales of antibiotics for food producing animals is reported since 2014; less than 30% of the UK’s antibiotics are now used to treat disease in the one billion farm animals that are reared and managed in the UK every year (UK-VARSS Report 2018). And new interesting science is constantly emerging, such as the recent story from Scotland’s Rural College, that shows that selective breeding can lead to the development of sheep strains that will be better able to cope with climate change.
In summary, VetSalus consultants are committed for the reasons outlined above, to applying the following precepts to their work:
- VetSalus is committed to the principles of One Health: “working locally, nationally, and globally — towards optimal health and wellbeing for people, domestic animals, wildlife, plants, and our environment”
- VetSalus will apply the best evidence-based science to all projects and will continue to review and research new and better technology
- VetSalus accepts that anthropogenic climate change is a global crisis but emphasises that carbon dioxide remains by far the greatest contributor to global warming
- VetSalus recognises that the continued increase in the world population means that global food production must significantly grow over the next 30 years if this population is to be fed
- VetSalus is committed to improving productivity and reducing the carbon footprint of farming animals because it believes that wholesome food from healthy animals will continue to be a critical part of agriculture for the foreseeable future
- VetSalus will work diligently to improve animal farming systems while working to reduce the use of antibiotics and the carbon footprint of farms
- VetSalus will never compromise on animal welfare; the welfare of animals in farming systems must remain paramount
- VetSalus recognises that farming is not a charitable activity and will work with farmers to ensure profitability
- VetSalus recognises that the severe global wealth inequality also negatively impacts on food options, food quantity and quality, consumer choices and productive processes, and values a more equitable distribution of wealth
- VetSalus will work to enhance education and will communicate effectively with journalists and modern media outlets, to ensure that the best science is readily available
In conclusion, the challenge of delivering the goals of One Health by the application of science-based solutions is one which all veterinarians, and in particular VetSalus consultants, are already working towards. We need more quality science if we are to continue to make progress in this complex and demanding area. But we also need to ensure that final adjudicators of the future of farming - the customers, consumers and citizens of the world - are better informed about the science of farming and climate change. That places a firm responsibility on all working in these disciplines to engage. VetSalus intends to play an important part in this debate.
If this article has been of interest, you can find out more about VetSalus, or read the eligibility criteria to register as a VetSalus consultant. We always want to hear from like-minded individuals who want to help improve animal health, welfare and sustainability.