In the opening address at the 2021 London Vet Show in November, British Veterinary Association (BVA) President Justine Shotton divulged that, in line with her presidential theme of “sustainability”, there would be a “green thread running through all [BVA] activities”. She also revealed that in the recent BVA Voice of the Veterinary Profession Survey, 97 percent of vets said that environmental sustainability is important to them. “This is really fantastic,” Justine commented, “but we do need to turn that into action.”
But what can we do to turn our concern into actionable change? And why is making these changes so important? These questions were discussed throughout the BVA Congress at the London Vet Show.
What would be the easiest, immediate changes that we could make as veterinary professionals to make the biggest difference?
This was a question Justine posed to the expert panellists of the congress session titled “Race to zero”, with Jen Gale, Sustainable(ish) founder, stating that her top tip “is to change your energy supplier to a green tariff” – something you can do at home and in practice. She also stated that it is important to understand where your money is being invested, especially when it is sitting in your pension or bank. Moving your pension, she declared, is “21 times more powerful than giving up flying, moving to a green energy tariff and going vegetarian. It is a hugely powerful thing to do.”
Zoe Halfacree, chair of Vet Sustain’s Greener Veterinary Practice Working Group, highlighted the importance getting the ball rolling by doing something simple, immediately. In regard to clinical practice “one really simple thing is to consider whether you are actually recycling as much as you can in different clinical areas,” she observed. Having the correct bins available to segregate your waste as completely and correctly as possible is something that does not always happen in a theatre setting, but can make a significant impact.
In regard to clinical practice “one really simple thing is to consider whether you are actually recycling as much as you can in different clinical areas,” [Zoe Halfacree] observed
Apropos of the farm sector, director of Vet Sustain, David Black, stated the biggest impact could be on the “advocacy piece”, but also affirmed the significance of “doing what we are doing, which is improving animal health and welfare”. However, David maintained that to do so, we need to support the farmers on the journey that they have already begun, observing that sustainability is “not a matter of going in and asking [farmers] to change, it is a matter of us understanding their businesses”.
Influence and apathy
When asked how veterinary professionals can make a difference both personally and professionally when it comes to climate change in her 2021 Wooldridge Memorial Lecture on “Polar thinking”, Tamsin Edwards, reader in climate change at King’s College London, brought up the importance of influence. The one thing that “hits home very profoundly… clearly and simply is young people – just the existence of young people caring about [sustainability],” stated Tamsin. The “pester power” of young people is crucial in influencing change because of the power they hold as the next generation of employees who have demonstrated a desire to work for those showcasing sustainable practices by rejecting jobs from employers who do not.
We all have the ability to influence others and not just the “young people”, reminded the self-described “ordinary, knackered mum of two”, Jen Gale. She observed that there is a misconception surrounding the ability to influence others, with people often feeling that they “need to be Greta or David Attenborough… in order to make a change that can make a difference”. This is not the case as “we are so much more powerful than we know”, a sentiment that is amplified for veterinary professionals who, as Justine observed, embody a trusted and influential role with impact “not only in what [they] do in [their] profession, but with members of the public”.
But what can we do when despite our best efforts we are not being heard? One delegate posed this question to the “Race to zero” panellists, who responded with tips on how you can motivate apathetic colleagues at a practice level.
Justine recommended that you research and pitch how the changes you want to make can actually save money to get management on board.
Giving the example of his own team adding a recycling caddy for tea bags to the break room, David suggested that you start by implementing small things, which helps build momentum. By doing so, as others see that you can make a difference, you prove that there are positive solutions that, as Tamsin endorsed, “aren’t berating people or worrying them that they have to give up everything they love”.
Sometimes apathy is a result of miscommunication or even a lack of understanding, especially as there is “a massive disconnect between being worried about [climate change] and feeling like there is anything you can do about it”
Jen also suggests that you ask for feedback to help understand why people are not interested in sustainability and to make sure that you are not making assumptions. “Have a very human, a very feelings-based conversation” with friends and colleagues to understand how they feel. Sometimes apathy is a result of miscommunication or even a lack of understanding, especially as there is “a massive disconnect between being worried about [climate change] and feeling like there is anything you can do about it,” reminded Jen.
Reuse, recycling and waste
Overall, when it came to the debate on reusable and single-use items, whether they are recyclable, biodegradable or not, the major point that came out from the “Race to zero” panel was the idea of “rational use”.
When asked to comment on the practicalities of biodegradable scrubs and tools in clinical practice, Zoe Halfacree stated that she believed “having a rational use of single-use versus reusable is the way we should be going”. Consideration of the energy needed to repackage and resterilise reusable items has been brought into the ongoing debate on what encompasses rational use during aseptic surgery. However, Zoe stated that a “fantastic foundation” for the consideration of rational use could be found in a study published in AORN examining the life-cycle analysis of single-use and reusable gowns, which made it clear that reuse was much lower in terms of environmental impact in every single aspect that was analysed.
Summarising the debate, Justine advocated the industry’s ability to think holistically about reusability, bringing to light the importance of balancing all of the factors. She maintained that rational use is not only about considering sustainability in terms of what textile is being used, but that it is also about considering “the chance of infection” because “the impacts of having an infection and using antibiotics, etc, is quite significant”.
Justine advocated the industry’s ability to think holistically about reusability, bringing to light the importance of balancing all of the factors
The term “biodegradable” itself was also scrutinised, with Jen warning against the massive scope for greenwashing that it provided – especially in a clinical context where products are likely going to be incinerated anyway. “It’s not a recognised definition,” Jen warned, “biodegradable just means that it will break down”, which will not take place in landfill where there is not enough oxygen for the process. Malcom Bennet, professor of zoonotic and emerging disease at the University of Nottingham’s School of Veterinary Science, urged caution when it comes to plastics, stating that “the word biodegradable doesn’t necessarily mean the same thing to different people”. Some plastics do not biodegrade unless they are in exactly the right conditions, he warned, “which does not mean your composting bin at home”. There is also a whole species of plastics made from sugars that biodegrade rapidly, turning into sugars that can cause algal blooms, he explained.
Most of all, monitoring what we are doing is essential, Malcom declared. With everything you do having potential consequences, it is important to acknowledge and accept mistakes – “there is nothing wrong with doing U-turns”. Zoe agreed, stating that in a clinical setting monitoring is crucial “so that we know that we are not making a change that is deleterious, then we have that evidence to back-up going forwards”.
Better health and welfare equals sustainability
Agriculture and herd health
On the farm side, a repeated sentiment was the suggestion that “farmers are part of the solution, not the problem”, as Stuart Roberts, deputy president of the National Farmers’ Union, summarised in the “Agriculture beyond Brexit: the Animal Health and Welfare Pathway” session. David Black echoed this statement in a later panel, reasoning that “we should stop, as a society, treating the farmers as the villains” because “if we reframe it, they are the only people who can sink this carbon”.
In the “Agriculture beyond Brexit” session, Jonathan Statham, chairman of the Animal Health and Welfare Board for England and past BCVA president, argued that herd health is a massive part of how vets contribute towards sustainability as “better herd health has got massive opportunity to reduce greenhouse gas emissions”. He evidenced this point with research that has shown “controlling BVD on a beef unit in the UK represents pushing 40 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions intensity”. To Jonathan, a change in business models is the key way to do this, and the new Animal Health and Welfare Pathway will play an integral role in this metamorphosis. The pathway, said Jonathan, is “an investment in taxpayers’ money into… endemic disease control and health and welfare on farms – it is directly supporting vets to be involved with farms in a sustainable way”. Something, he observes, that has not happened for a “long, long time”.
For [Stuart Roberts, deputy president of the National Farmers’ Union], welfare and sustainability are not just about tackling each disease one by one but about implementing a change in culture
Stuart acknowledged that agriculture would be the sector most affected by climate change, and so it has not only a responsibility but a necessity to contribute towards sustainability. But for him, welfare and sustainability are not just about tackling each disease one by one but about implementing a change in culture. The pathway, he argues, is an opportunity to change the culture as long as it is “adaptable, reactive, responsive to [each individual’s] business needs”. It is important that the pathway is not a tick-box exercise to collect data, but instead is used to start a dialogue around the issues each farm needs to address, which, says Stuart, “may well be very different from the farm next door”.
The overall feeling of the panel session on the “Effective and responsible use of parasiticides” was that there is still a lot of work and research that needs to be done before what truly constitutes “responsible use” can be decided. Regular Veterinary Practice contributor and ESCCAP Guideline Director, Ian Wright, argued this point but also added that “whatever we decide in debates and whatever ways forward we find and whatever evidence emerges, if that is not passed on to clients it is all essentially in vain”.
Consumerism and companion animal welfare
“We are consumers and we like stuff, and we like putting this onto our pets,” Gudrun Ravetz, director and chair of Vet Sustain, summarised in the “Reducing the carbon pawprint” session. Instead of humanising our pets and fulfilling our own desires to spoil them, it is important to consider their true welfare needs: we need to “move away from human-centred consumerism to animal-centred behaviours,” she argued. Veterinary professionals can therefore make an impact on sustainability by educating pet owners on the real needs of pets. The challenge, she observed, is actually having these conversations and doing so in a way that “works for everybody”. “The collective professional voice is really important to promote positive carbon reductions, but really importantly, through a positive welfare lens – the two cannot be separated,” Gudrun concluded.