Barack Obama is quoted as saying: “We are the first generation to feel the effect of climate change and the last generation who can do something about it.” This message is getting ever more strident as others, such as Antonio Guterres at COP27 who warned that “we are on a highway to climate hell with our foot on the accelerator”, reinforce it.
The outcome awaiting us if we don’t act urgently is clearly demonstrated in the simple graphical representation of global warming first developed by Ed Hawkins and colleagues at the University of Reading (#Showyourstripes) (Figure 1). Yet the issues are far wider than just climate change; they include biodiversity collapse, species extinction, food and resource scarcity and antimicrobial resistance, so interactions and solutions are complex.
The role of the veterinary profession
The veterinary professions work in a unique and privileged area at the intersection of animal, human and environmental health. We have a perspective on One Health that creates a position of responsibility and influence with the potential to be a leading force for change.
This is particularly relevant for livestock vets who have a role in supporting the development of the sustainable food and farming systems we need to meet the nutritional needs of our growing population, combat climate change, regenerate ecosystems, secure rural livelihoods and safeguard animal welfare. We have privileged access to the farming businesses that represent our food systems, the unrivalled trust of our clients and a multidisciplinary skill set.
The veterinary professions work in a unique and privileged area at the intersection of animal, human and environmental health […] that creates a position of responsibility and influence with the potential to be a leading force for change
As veterinary professionals, no matter what sphere we work in, we are in a powerful position to take action and inspire others. We can impact at several levels: as individuals and citizens, in the way we live our lives; as veterinary businesses and part of local communities; and as trusted advocates, advising clients on many aspects of sustainability.
However, findings from a joint survey by Vet Sustain and the Veterinary Defence Society indicate that further information and support is sought by practices (Halfacree and Stonehewer, 2021). Relatively few practices had a policy regarding environmental sustainability, while over half of respondents felt that a greater knowledge of sustainable solutions for veterinary practices would encourage the creation of such policies.
Much of what we do in clinical practice is designed not only to optimise patient welfare and outcome but to maintain the health and safety of the veterinary team. Changes made for sustainability do not need to compromise these standards.
There are many examples of where we, as individuals, can make a difference; however, these are outside the scope of this paper which focuses on the veterinary industry.
Many veterinary professionals support the BVA’s UK Sustainable Animal Agriculture Policy statement: “The veterinary profession should promote the concept of ‘less and better’, in which people reduce their consumption of animal-derived products while maintaining proportional spend to buy better, higher quality goods.” The idea of “less and better” can be applied across many resources and not just food.
|You can find a wealth of ideas on how you as an individual (and beyond) can help in the Improve Veterinary Practice sustainability column here.|
As vet-led businesses
Vet-led businesses are often based at the heart of the community they serve, especially in rural practice settings. So they have a role of leading by example while constantly seeking to improve their own sustainability.
A great place to start is the Vet Sustain Greener Veterinary Practice Checklist, which highlights simple steps to embed sustainability into clinical practice. Some key examples of opportunities to deliver change are explored below.
Responsible resourcing and recycling
Responsible resource use reduces environmental impact, preserves resources for the future and often brings cost savings. Adopting the “waste hierarchy” of “reduce, reuse, recycle” (DEFRA, 2021) is the first step in waste reduction. A great example is changing from single-use plastic sharps containers, typically incinerated with their contents, to reusable sharps containers.
The use of plastics in medicine has revolutionised healthcare; however, plastics have an environmental impact during both their synthesis and disposal, not to mention their persistence in the environment. Rizan et al. (2020) reported that of the 45 to 64 percent of plastic healthcare waste that is recyclable, only 5 percent is actually recycled in the UK – we do not have the equivalent veterinary data.
Sustainable business operations
Sustainable business operations should involve measuring and monitoring resource usage and the business’s carbon footprint. This is key to understanding the impact of your practice, how this compares with other practices, where the key drivers are, what can be tackled “in-house” and which areas need collaborative action, such as the Scope 3 emissions of supply chains. (A great tool is the Carbon Calculator developed by Vet Sustain in association with Investors in the Environment.)
Sustainable business operations should involve measuring and monitoring resource usage and the business’s carbon footprint. This is key to understanding the impact of your practice
Clinical protocols should be optimal, lean and efficient. All travel associated with activities of the business could be rationalised to reduce carbon emissions, both of supplies delivered and the delivery of veterinary services.
Responsible medicine use and advice
Appropriate use of antimicrobials, antiparasitics, hormones, etc, is essential in running a sustainable vet-led business. These efforts are particularly to mitigate the development of antimicrobial resistance but also help prevent environmental contamination from veterinary medicines.
Colleague and community engagement
The sustainability of people is also critically important, so we need to ensure that we have tools in place to foster a “thriving in practice” culture. Examples of things you can put in place include well-being gardens, green spaces, fresh fruit deliveries, social activities, mentoring and coaching.
Don’t be shy about telling the local community what you are doing as a business – engage with local media, school visits, village events, etc. This can really help to build your presence and reach within your community.
As advocates and advisors
We are a trusted profession and have a responsibility for our social licence, but we also have an opportunity to influence our clients and the animals they care for. But how can we do this?
Reframe the discussion
Engage with farmers, equine owners and domestic pet owners, asking open questions and showing an enthusiasm to understand their perspectives and issues. It helps to approach conversations or debates in an evidence-based way with verifiable facts – so it can help to have these prepared before and readily available.Adopt holistic, systems-based strategies when possible. Integrated parasite management is a leading example of this and is an approach that incorporates genetics, breeding, nutrition, worm egg monitoring (Figure 2), pasture management, etc.
Inform ourselves and our clients
Why not undertake training such as that offered by Vet Sustain and VetSalus? Keeping yourself informed with the latest knowledge on sustainable principles and innovations in the industry can ensure you’re readily prepared to have conversations with your clients and help them stay informed. Understanding the science, terminology, legislation and policies (such as the Environmental Land Management Schemes and the Animal Health and Welfare Pathway) is also essential to stay informed.
Keeping yourself informed with the latest knowledge on sustainable principles and innovations in the industry can ensure you’re readily prepared to have conversations with your clients
Staying informed and abreast of new ideas and changes in veterinary sustainability will help you help clients:
- Optimise the health and welfare of their animals at all times
- Understand the impacts of genetics/genomics and breeding
- Ensure responsible medicine – we are the gatekeepers
It is critical that we, as a profession, grasp our unique opportunities and, hopefully, feel empowered and inspired to engage with sustainability for the future of our planet and to ensure the ongoing provision of outstanding veterinary care.
|Vet Sustain is a unique social enterprise championing veterinary sustainability and with a vision that the veterinary profession be enabled as leading forces for sustainability. Resources, tools and training are available.|