What's the role of the vet in a world that eats less meat?

Posted on November 26, 2015 by John Blackwell

Steak and chipsI’m a vet who has spent years working with farmers, focused on the welfare of livestock, so the current focus and, arguably, societal pressure to eat less meat – for the benefit of human health and the benefit of the environment – poses some thought-provoking questions for me and other production animal vets.

And I’m pleased to say that BVA Congress at the London Vet Show didn’t duck these challenging questions, but tackled them head on in two well-attended sessions: ‘Vets in a climate change world: is animal welfare being forgotten?’ and ‘What’s the role of the vet in a world that eats less meat?’

A global imbalance of meat consumption

When I think about it, at the heart of that last question is a conundrum: on the one hand, the global population is predicted to hit nine billion by 2050 and we see increasing demand for meat and meat products as economic growth and affluence continues in developing nations.

On the other hand, the British Medical Association has increased calls for society to consume less meat, not only to reduce intake of potentially harmful fats in order to reduce chronic cardiovascular conditions, but also to reduce carbon footprint and thereby help to slow down the rate of climate change. This global imbalance of meat and protein consumption was a point well-made by Dr Tara Garnett in the climate change discussion at BVA Congress.

So where should vets stand in all of this, particularly those of us who work with livestock? In my mind, we have a role across the piste, with the promotion of good animal health and welfare within a sustainable agricultural industry being at the heart of our work.

Welfare at slaughter

Cow in a fieldVets will always have a clear role in ensuring that animal welfare is of the highest standard across all sectors and production systems. The concern of vets for the welfare of production animals is seen in results of a recent BVA Voice of the Veterinary Profession survey, where two in every three vets told us that one of their top priorities for the UK Government was improving welfare at slaughter. Our members who are concerned about welfare at slaughter have increased by more than half (52%) in the last 12 months.

The focus on less meat in the developed world with the need for more sources of protein in emerging economies should not be seen as opposites, but as an opportunity instead.

Quality of meat over quantity

As meat consumption decreases in the developed world, a greater emphasis should be placed on the quality of meat produced - and the welfare of animals bred for consumption should be part and parcel of what ‘quality’ means here. That’s the challenge facing the veterinary profession and we should grasp it.

Increasingly society demonstrates that it cares about the provenance of its food source and veterinary surgeons will have an increasing role to play in advocating for animal welfare, whilst reinforcing the quality of the end product.

If less meat means farmers need to drive towards more efficient production then there are ways to achieve this without compromising animal welfare but rather enhancing it. Vets should strive with our farmer clients to strip out the inefficiencies that disease bring; we know for instance that with respiratory disease the pathology that can develop will undoubtedly result in increased days to slaughter, which ultimately has an economic as well as a carbon cost.

In the BVA Congress session on the role of the vet in a world that eats less meat, Richard Vacqueray made the very pertinent point that vets have a key role to play in husbandry education.

If we make the UK a beacon for world-renowned quality meat, with the highest standards of animal health and welfare within a sustainable agriculture industry, we could situate UK agriculture as an humane, sustainable model that is aspired to across the globe.


John Blackwell

Written by John Blackwell

BVA President from September 2014 to September 2015

John is a farm animal and equine practitioner, and a director at Brownlow Veterinary Centre in Shropshire. Follow John on Twitter