Sustainability at VetSouth
VetSouth is one of the largest veterinary practices in New Zealand and is based predominantly in the southern half of the South Island. (see www.vetsouth.co.nz) VetSouth has also been involved as a founding member of VetSalus.
Several years ago VetSouth invited a small number of leaders to a sustainability workshop with their vets and senior staff. Amongst the guests were a water ecologist, a veterinarian who specialises in catchment health, the CEO of the largest organic dairy farm in the Southern Hemisphere, and a leading local organic farmer who has overseen the development of a region-wide Environmental Health group.
Staff were entertained and educated over two days by these four different experts, and came away inspired to map a future focus for their veterinary business. That led to the formation of an internal VetSouth Sustainability Group, which was a small subset of their vets who coalesced into a working group to lead the broader team.
Top of the list for them was to better understand greenhouse gases (GHGs), and the role those in the agricultural community have in this space. Recognising that vets always need technical answers, their first step was to research a comprehensive assessment of the role of various GHGs and their source in climate change. This was intended to provide answers to any vets’ questions, in effect a ‘Vet FAQ sheet’, so that they in turn felt comfortable talking with farmers on the subject. Climate change and the role of agriculture can be a polarising subject and vets generally hate feeling unarmed in any technical discussion; so providing them with a peer-reviewed report to support any discussion was undoubtedly an important initial step.
The next phase involved the migration of the veterinary team into leadership roles. Having vets well briefed on the science allowed them to feel comfortable discussing various viewpoints with farmers and other stakeholders. This has proven to be particularly valuable as New Zealand has started taking bold steps to reduce emissions, which in turn has created a lot of public debate.
Over recent years, farming in general has become a more polarising area for many, a multifactorial issue but likely strongly linked to consumers’ gradual disassociation from food production and farming practices. Farming is unique, because many critics seem to believe it is the only sector where behavioural change will be achieved through vilification, shaming and highlighting the negative, rather than by support, education and highlighting positive practices; which as any behavioural scientist will tell you is the more appropriate change model.
Having a discussion with farmers around their impact on climate change can easily become an adversarial encounter. Vets, however, are in a unique position in that our relationship with clients is strong and often long-standing. Farmers value and respect veterinary advice, and recognise that we have similar values and goals. Vets are also in a great position to help shape and influence farmers’ thoughts and actions.
And so the goal at VetSouth has been modest - the intention is not to change the world, or the region, government policy or even farmers’ minds. Instead, they have embarked on a journey of support for their farmers as they themselves navigate the next few years around emissions legislation and climate change mitigation.
VetSouth recognizes that their best efforts are not to advocate for farmers - there are plenty of groups who do that - but to act as a trustworthy sounding board for their clients, who may hold diverse views. They will frame discussions with science and facts, and also recognise the political situation. Most of all they will offer support, in terms of clarifying the science behind the issues and focussing on the positives.
VetSouth will acknowledge the significant warming impact of methane, but also point out the long term impact of CO2. They will recognise that a short term reduction in ruminant emissions will have an immediate impact on warming, but that a long term shift to decarbonise our lives is necessary if we are to have any chance of the planet surviving for future generations.
The VetSouth Sustainability Group hasn’t achieved all of these things yet; but it has embarked upon a continual journey of improvement. And as a business they are also focussed on broader change such as those they are working towards at VetSalus, Vet Sustain and with other stakeholders globally.