Farm Vets and Sustainability – because it’s what we do!
I often find when talking to farm vets about sustainability and regenerative agriculture, that the levels of interest and engagement vary considerably. This is totally understandable, these are generally very busy people, who are “spinning lots of plates”, and frequently do not have the time to sit down and think about what sustainability really means for us as individuals, or as vet-led businesses, or even as animal health and welfare advocates. I suspect part of this problem is the result of the regular exposure that we, as vets, get to the apparently binary argument that “vegetarian is good, meat is bad”; we do not always have easy access to the evidence and data to the contrary and so engagement in a balanced discussion is often avoided. It cannot be denied that these are complex issues and it is very easy to get drawn into the detail, rather than looking at the bigger picture. “Sustainability” in any context, simply means “enough for everyone, forever”.
In order to broaden your perspective, I would recommend watching “Kiss the Ground” narrated by Woody Harrelson https://kissthegroundmovie.com which considers how important the soil is in carbon capture. And also watching or reading “Sacred Cow” by Diana Rodgers and Robb Wolf https://www.sacredcow.info/ which explores some of the issues we face in raising and eating animals. They present an objective and balanced view of the advantageous role of farm species in biodiverse systems, as opposed to some of the current monoculture based approaches to rearing ruminants .
A more considered view of this bigger picture shows that ruminants are an absolutely essential component of sustainable farming systems, and that regenerative agriculture is simply a systems-based way of thinking about sustainable production; few would argue about the inherent value of rich biosystems and ecosystems. There is no doubt that agriculture has to address many aspects of its carbon footprint and the ensuing contribution to climate change, even though considerable debate remains about the size of that contribution. But as farm vets we also need to champion the fact that livestock farming will be part of that solution as well. Yes! It is undeniable that rumination releases methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, but methane is broken down in the atmosphere over 10-15 years to water and carbon dioxide (1, 2), which are recaptured by the grazing pastures and associated farmland and woodland – a self contained biocycle. In contrast, fossil fuels contain carbon extracted from deep within the earth, which is subsequently released as carbon dioxide and not broken down for many hundreds of years. Furthermore, because we have had ruminants on the planet for thousands of years (think of the millions of bison which once roamed the plains of North America) this grazing methane cycle is effectively in equilibrium. There is growing evidence to suggest that the self-contained cycle has only become unbalanced by human activity of the last ten thousand or so years, which saw destruction of many species of large herbivores and mining of fossil fuels.
It thus becomes clear that anything we, as livestock vets, can do to improve the efficiency of ruminant production will first of all free up more land for the improvement of biodiversity, but more importantly create less methane, reducing the planet’s methane load. The existing methane will break down and we will immediately start contributing to global cooling (3). By becoming more efficient we can ultimately achieve more with less; more agricultural outputs, quantity and quality for less input of resources, energy and time (4).
Here are just some areas we as vets can continue to have an impact;
- Health and Welfare – this is a large topic in its own right but healthy animals are more efficient animals; disease, be it endemic or epidemic is costly, as is poor fertility and reduced longevity
- Nutrition – understand the implications of micro- and macro-nutrition and engage with nutritionists to seek even greater feed conversion efficiencies
- Selection and Breeding – we are only just scratching the surface of understanding the impacts of genetics and epigenetics on health and welfare, and we can utilise advanced breeding strategies and technologies to breed the most suitable animals for the future
- Responsible Medicine Use – there is the carbon footprint of the medicines themselves to consider but more importantly the impacts of inappropriate use of antimicrobials, anti-parasiticides, hormones and other medicines can be devastating to the environment
- One Health – we must engage with the entire food chain – we sit at the very intersection of human, animal and environmental health – at least 75% of emerging infectious diseases have been zoonotic (5).
- Embrace new technology and innovation – vets are uniquely placed to analyse new data sources, and to evaluate the contribution of biosensors, genomics, advanced breeding technologies, etc in improving animal health, welfare and productivity.
The positive impact we can have on climate change and sustainability as individuals can be significant, and as veterinary businesses even more so; but as experts and advocates, working proactively with our clients, it is immense.
If you have found this article interesting please have a look at our other articles on the news section of the VetSalus website. The VetSalus team are currently working in partnership with Vet Sustain with particular involvement in the Food & Farming Working Group. For information on our activities here keep an eye on the Vet Sustain website and the Stories section.
This article was written by David Black; Director of VetSalus. David is a practitioner and MD of a fiercely independent mixed rural vet practice in Cumbria. Clinical interests are in cattle reproduction and advanced breeding technologies including IVF. He is a Recognised Specialist in Cattle Health and Production and a Fellow of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons. He is passionate about vet-led business, global veterinary collaboration, One Health and veterinary sustainability, working closely with Vet Sustain as a Director.
- Farmgate podcast, (2020), Ruminant methane, GWP* and Global Warming. Available at: https://www.faifarms.com/podcasts/ruminant-methane-gwp-global-warming/
- Lynch, J., Costain, F. & Hill, C. Climate change ruminant methane and GWP*, Vet Sustain, 2020. Available at: https://www.thewebinarvet.com/webinar/climate-change-ruminant-methane-and-gwp
- Capper, J. L., & Bauman, D. E. (2013) The role of Productivity in Improving the Environmental Sustainability of Ruminant Production Systems. Annual Review of Animal Biosciences, vol. 1, no. 1, Jan. 2013, pp. 469-489. Available at: https://www.annualreviews.org/doi/full/10.1146/annurev-animal-031412-103727
- Keating, B. A., et al. (2010) Eco-Efficient Agriculture: Concepts, Challenges, and Opportunities. Crop Science, vol. 50, Mar. 2010, p.109-119. Available at: https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/194840244.pdf
- EClinicalMedicine. (2020) Emerging zoonoses: A one health challenge. EClinical Medicine. 2020;19:100300. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7046497/