At a time when some of the world’s most pressing socio-political and environmental challenges are in sharp focus, what is the veterinary surgeon’s role in driving a sustainable food system fit for the future?
What role can, and should, we take in feeding the world’s growing population? And how do we use our unique expertise to best effect? How do we balance the need to feed a growing population with our responsibility for the welfare of animals in our care, and with the long-term environmental and economic viability of the farming communities of which we are a part?
The latest UN predictions of population forecast that there will be over 10 billion people in the world by 2050, which means an increasing demand for dietary protein – levels which have nearly doubled since 2005. This correlates with the rapid expansion of food animals to a global figure of over 70 billion, and a legacy of production systems with some major sustainability blocking challenges.
In the 2016 Global Agricultural Productivity report, it is estimated that one fifth of all livestock are lost to disease through the production system. The frequently postulated need to “double food production” is challenged by some who argue that, if we can close some of these productivity gaps, we already produce enough.
There is little doubt that disease compromises sustainability across the board, and there is an urgent need to develop new ways of approaching the control of endemic disease across the globe. From an environmental perspective, loss through mortality or morbidity can be high as the resources (including land, water, feed and time used to rear the animal) may be wasted, and in the case of bacterial dis-ease, the One Health or environmental “treatment cost” can also be significant. From an ethical perspective, the effect on animal welfare is clear, but high animal losses can also have a negative impact on agricultural workers and communities. These productivity challenges can be the source of huge economic loss or missed economic opportunity.
Environmentally, there is also evidence that both the amount and, critically, the way we use the land for food production have some major knock-on detrimental effects on climate and biodiversity. We are likely all aware of the impact of deforestation on rainforest in South America, but closer to home, the 2016 State of Nature report indicates a 56 percent decline in British wildlife species since 1970.
Harnessing our influence
As vets, we have much to contribute in terms of our broad knowledge of genetics, nutrition, husbandry, biosecurity and the judicious use of vaccines, diagnostics and treatments. Increasingly we have the ability to look at disease control in a holistic and truly preventative way, delivering practical, actionable solutions for producers – but we must do so in our professional lives with increased vigour and urgency.
As influencers, our profession has a strong role in societal leadership and advocacy through our actions and through veterinary practices as hubs of knowledge, by developing our knowledge of broader issues concerned with food production and its ethical, environmental and economic impacts. As we shift from being consumers towards being citizens – where we have the freedom not just to choose what we consume but to play an active role in shaping what those options are – this brings with it a responsibility with which we must be well informed and proactive.
We have a responsibility to lead by example and to do this with energy and enthusiasm for the huge positive changes we can and must all make. My own personal sustainability “audit” in the last year has included re-evaluating my family’s food consumption habits, growing a bit more, wasting a lot less and actively looking for more sustainable options in food packaging and some crucial ingredients such as palm oil, and an overhaul of single-use plastics – including ridding the house of lots of products from baby wipes, cling film and food bags to tea bags and packaging materials.
Alarmed to learn of the environmental cost of some cotton production and processing systems, we are trying to change our clothing use habits, asking questions of retailers about their sourcing, buying from more sustainable outlets and recycling. By more explicitly stating and acting on our own preferences, I hope that in some small way we are able to shape and focus the rate and path of change. This move from consumer to citizen has been called the “citizen shift”, and I see this as a way for us all take action.
Both as professionals and human beings, we have much to contribute – by fully deploying our important skillset, taking personal responsibility, challenging ourselves in our professional and personal decisions and emerging as leaders in the sustainability shift.
This article was originally published on the BVA blog.