Recognising animal welfare as a public good

Posted on January 08, 2018 by John Fishwick

Piglets and farmingAlthough he didn’t use the phrase itself, One Health was at the heart of Michael Gove’s speech to the Oxford Farming Conference, at which he set out his vision for farming post-Brexit. One Health is the inter-connectedness of human health and wellbeing, animal health and welfare and the environment, and, across 5,500 words, Mr Gove ticked all the boxes.

That was, up to the point that he described what he regards as so-called “public goods”, i.e. those things the government is prepared to pay farmers for using public money. At this point animal health and welfare took a back seat:

“But vital as investment in our environment is, it is not the only public good I think we should invest in - I believe we should also invest in technology and skills alongside infrastructure, public access and rural resilience,” he said.

Understandably, the environment is top of his list and we applaud his commitment to designing a post-CAP scheme that will reward landowners who enhance the natural environment, through planting woodland, providing new habitats for wildlife, increasing biodiversity, and so on.

And we can’t argue with his championing of technology and skills. A lot of his speech focused on the transformative power of research, technology and innovation, much of which is being pioneered by our leading veterinary research institutions in the UK.   

Disappointment as vets

But, as vets, we are disappointed that animal health and welfare doesn’t make it onto Mr Gove’s list. Since he took up his role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs he has made his own personal commitment to animal welfare clear – through numerous statements and speeches, and through action, from CCTV in slaughterhouses to cracking down on puppy farmers.

So, although he acknowledges that the list is not exhaustive, it is curious that he doesn’t explicitly reference animal health and welfare as one of his priority public goods.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the British Veterinary Association puts support for animal health and welfare as public goods at the very top of our list of objectives for a new UK agricultural policy.

Public goods by their very nature are not market goods in the same way as livestock products, such as meat and milk; they have no explicit value in terms of market prices and so the market cannot efficiently allocate resources to them. It is therefore down to the government to intervene on society’s behalf, through regulation or financial support.

Farm Animal Welfare Committee

Our view is supported by the government’s own adviser, the Farm Animal Welfare Committee (FAWC), who explained in a 2011 report that animal welfare is a public good in that “the knowledge of improved farm animal welfare can benefit all those in society who care about welfare”.

However, FAWC also pointed out that little use had been made by Government of incentive payments or other positive inducements for farm animal welfare and concluded:

“Government should ensure that a sustainable approach to food production addresses not only food security and environmental protection, but also animal welfare.”

It is also clear that the wider economic and societal impacts of animal health and welfare are substantial. An obvious, but powerful example is the Foot and Mouth outbreak in 2001 which is estimated to have cost £5 billion to the private sector and £3 billion to the public sector, damaged the lives of farmers and rural communities and caused a general election to be postponed.

Of course, much of the driver for the government’s post-Brexit agriculture policy must be to ensure that UK trade in food goes from strength to strength. 

Post-Brexit agriculture policy

Mr Gove stresses that the recent growth in UK exports “has been built on a reputation for quality and provenance, on the knowledge that we have among the highest environmental and animal welfare standards of any nation on earth.” 

Meanwhile, FAWC pointed out that “both EU policy and WTO rules allow for payments to producers to compensate them for higher costs associated with ensuring high levels of animal welfare” further underlining our argument.

As BVA has been at pains to point out since the referendum, none of the UK’s trade in animals and animal products can be realised without the input of veterinary surgeons. As animal health and welfare, and public health, specialists and advocates we seek to influence sustainable future livestock and food production. 

Our veterinary vision for post-Brexit agriculture policy puts animal health and welfare support as public goods at its centre. We also call for public money to be used ambitiously, maximising its benefits and incentivising innovation; for a policy that respects devolution but recognises that coordination is crucial; for compliance with WTO rules; for coordination with trade policy, industrial strategy and other strategic goals, such as tackling antibiotic resistance; and for veterinary involvement from formulation of policy to farm to fork.

John Fishwick

Written by John Fishwick

BVA President from September 2017 to September 2018

John is senior lecturer in Dairy Herd Medicine and former head of the Department of Production and Population Health at the Royal Veterinary College (RVC). He is a former President of the British Cattle Veterinary Association (BCVA). Prior to this he worked in mixed practice and he was once head veterinarian to the world’s largest fully integrated dairy company, farming over 25,000 high producing dairy cows in Saudi Arabia.