The politics of food and sustainability – Where do vets fit?

Posted on April 29, 2019 by Ruth Clements

At a time when some of the world’s most pressing socio-political and environmental challenges come into 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? How do we best use our unique expertise for maximum effect? And 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? 

Although global birth rate is on the decline, the latest UN predictions of population predict 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.

Sustainability challenges

The 2016 “Global Agricultural Productivity” or GAP report describes the “Greatest untold story of food waste today” in which it is estimated that 1/5th 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 we already produce enough if we can close some of these productivity gaps.

There is little doubt that disease compromises sustainability across the board, and indeed 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 disease 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, but critically the way we use the land for food production, has some major knock on detrimental effects on climate and biodiversity. We are likely all aware of the impact of deforestation on iconic areas of rainforest in South America, Africa and Indonesia, but closer to home the 2016 ”State of nature report” indicates a 56% decline in British wildlife species since 1970.

So, what can we all do today and into tomorrow, as vets, prescribers, consumers and human beings to leave our mark in a positive and potentially transformational way?

Vets have much to contribute

As vets we have much to contribute from our broad knowledge in terms 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 an increased vigor and urgency.

Harnessing our influence

As influencers, our profession has a strong role in societal leadership and advocacy through our actions. Veterinary practices can be hubs of knowledge for broad 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 also 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.

As human beings we have a responsibility to lead by example – no matter how small that might seem, 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. An overhaul of single use plastics – including ridding the house of all sorts 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 by asking questions of retailers about their sourcing, trying to buy 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.

Leaders in the sustainability shift

Both as professionals and human beings we have much to contribute – by fully deploying our important skill-set, taking personal responsibility, challenging ourselves in our professional and personal decisions and emerging as leaders in the sustainability shift.


Ruth Clements, Benchmark’s Head of Veterinary Programmes, presented at the BVA Annual Congress to speak about vet’s role in the sustainability of the food chain. These points summarise the take aways from her BVA Congress session. For more information about how vets can contribute to sustainable animal agriculture, read the BVA sustainability and the veterinary profession action plan.

Ruth Clements

Written by Ruth Clements

Ruth Clements graduated as a Veterinary Surgeon from Edinburgh University in 2008 and has a degree in molecular biology. She lives in Oxfordshire with her husband, two small daughters and an assortment of animals large and small. She is Head of Veterinary Programmes at Benchmark, leading the founding principles of the Benchmark group by working with the natural biology of the animal and understanding the full epidemiology of disease processes to bring together practical actionable balanced solutions for farmers to some of our most challenging diseases.

Ruth is best known for her work on lameness in sheep where her approach has now been accepted by industry stakeholders as the national control strategy against this disease, with prevalence levels and associated antibiotic use in the UK steadily declining. She now takes these principles across agriculture and aquaculture, looking towards tackling some of the most challenging blockers to sustainable production in the various sectors.