Embracing Sustainability In Veterinary Practice
At the recent BCVA Congress, VetSalus Managing Director, David Black, presented a paper entitled “Embracing Sustainability In Veterinary Practice”.
Below is a summary of the key points:
Sustainable farming systems are critical to successfully tackling the climate and ecological crises and vet-led teams involved in agriculture have an essential role to play.
Our planet is facing a catastrophic environmental crisis including:
- Climate change - possibly the greatest global threat to human health (1)
- Antimicrobial resistance - which threatens the lives of many millions of people
- Biodiversity collapse
- Food and resource scarcity
- Zoonoses - 75% of new infectious diseases are zoonotic and many originating at the animal-human-environment interface
The veterinary professions have a unique ‘One Health’ perspective on many of these issues and hold a position of responsibility. Influence and leadership can be delivered at several levels:
- as individuals in the way we live
- as veterinary businesses
- as trusted advocates, advising clients on many aspects of sustainability including optimising animal health, medicine use and regenerative agriculture.
In a 2019 BVA survey, 89% of the veterinary profession stated that they wished to play a more active role on sustainability but recent findings from a joint survey by Vet Sustain and VDS (2) indicate that further information and support is sought. But clinical protocols, which are applied to optimise patient welfare and outcomes and to ensure health and safety, cannot be compromised by changes made for sustainability.
Examples of changes which improve sustainability and reduce environmental impact include:
1. Responsible resource use:
- Switching to a green energy provider and promoting a ‘switch off’ culture.
- Optimisation of waste management: Reducing resource use is the first step in the waste reduction hierarchy, followed by Re-use and Recycling.
- Use of plastics: despite revolutionising healthcare, they have a large environmental impact.It is estimated that less than 5% of potentially recyclable medical plastics are recycled in the human field (3), (equivalent data is lacking for the veterinary sector)
2. Sustainability in business operations:
- Ensure clinical protocols are optimal, lean and efficient.
- Rationalise work-related travel to reduce carbon emissions. This is a key area for the farm vet – a move to hybrid or all-electric vehicles or hydrogen will become increasingly attractive as will technologies such as trackers, to improve efficiency of farm visits.
3. Advise on using medicines responsibly:
- Appropriate use of antimicrobials and antiparasitic agents is essential to mitigate the development of resistance. There is a vital role for veterinary surgeons to make decisions about the treatment protocols and to educate clients about appropriate pharmaceutical use and disposal.
Below are a few examples of how, as advocates and advisors, veterinarians can influence the agricultural sector on sustainability:
- Understand the science (eg GWP*, carbon footprints, )
- Understand the terminology (eg organic, regenerative, sustainable +/- intensification)
- Be aware of legislation and policy (The Agriculture Act 2020, Farming Rules for Water, Farming is Changing, ELMS, Animal Health and Welfare Pathway etc)
- Optimise health and welfare at all times (BVA Policy on Sustainable Agriculture)
- Understand the impacts of genetics/genomics and (advanced) breeding
- Ensure responsible medicine use across clients’ farms – we are the gatekeepers
- Consider feed conversion efficiency as well as land use efficiency
Veterinarians must become empowered to engage with sustainability, for both the future of our planet and to ensure the ongoing provision of outstanding veterinary care.
Some available resources:
- The Greener Veterinary Practice Checklist to signpost changes that can be made in the practice itself
- An Introduction to Sustainability in Farm Vet Practice - case studies highlighting what farm vets are already doing
- In preparation, is a self-directed modular e-learning course covering many aspects of sustainable farming and adapted to suit practitioners who are interested in production animal vet practice and about protecting the planet we share.
- Costello, A., Abbas., M, Allen, A. et al., (2009), Managing the health effects of climate change, The Lancet Commissions, 373: 1693-1733.
- Halfacree, Z. and Stonehewer, J. (2021), Vet professionals want to make sustainability changes. Veterinary Record, 189: 157-157. https://doi.org/10.1002/vetr.860
- Rizan, C., Mortimer, F., Stancliffe, R., Bhutta, M. (2020), Plastics in health care: a time for re-evaluation. Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, 113: 49-54. https://www.veterinaryevidence.org/index.php/ve/article/download/251/318?inline=1