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Sustainable strategies

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CLIMATE change and the environment figure so prominently in pronouncements from DEFRA these days that it is a relief to find, in the department’s annual report for 2005,* that animal health and welfare still feature. The emphasis is again very much on the environment, with the concept of sustainability now so firmly imbued in the department’s psyche that it is embarking on a ‘think sustainable’ campaign to ensure that the message gets through to all of its staff. Nevertheless, developing ‘a sustainable farming and food sector including animal health and welfare’ remains one of DEFRA’s five strategic priorities, and the report gives a useful, albeit brief, overview of its activities in this area.

Defining this priority more closely, DEFRA explains that it means ‘helping create a sustainable food and farming supply chain serving the market and the environment; putting in place systems to reduce risks of animal diseases, and being ready to control them when they occur’. The report gives details of progress in reforming the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), with the result that funds have been diverted from agricultural support towards rural development and environment schemes. It also explains how decoupling direct payments from production will help ‘reconnect’ farmers to their markets, by enabling them to make production decisions on the basis of what the public wants rather than what the subsidy supported. On the specific matter of animal health and welfare, it draws attention to the launch of the Animal Health and Welfare Strategy (AHWS) in June last year, providing a framework for ‘a lasting and continuous improvement in the health and welfare of kept animals while protecting society, the economy and the environment from the effect of animal diseases’. Emphasising a message that is fairly familiar by now, it notes that ‘The strategy’s key theme is working in partnership, and it establishes the roles and responsibilities not just of Government, but of all parties with an interest in animal health and welfare.’

It is encouraging that a section on ‘sustainable rural communities’ in the report acknowledges the contribution that the horse industry makes to the economy: it estimates that up to 250,000 people are employed in the industry, and that its gross economic output is £3·4 billion. There is no such mention of companion animals but perhaps it is time that the value of this sector to society was recognised, too.

Figures in the report indicate that DEFRA plans to spend £334 million on animal health and welfare in 2005/06 (compared with £237 million in 2004/05), and £322 million in each of the years 2006/07 and 2007/08. They also indicate that, in each of the next three years, it intends to spend £65 million on disease prevention. This is more than the £25 million spent on disease prevention in 1999/2000, the year before the foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) outbreak of 2001, but all of these sums are dwarfed by the £2·363 billion spent by the department during the year of the outbreak. The 2001 FMD outbreak was in many respects exceptional. However, the figures show just how costly a serious animal disease outbreak can be and demonstrate why, on economic grounds alone, an effective AHWS is so vital.

For all the effort that has been put into developing the AHWS, progress in implementing it has been painfully slow, and it is to be hoped that the strategy implementation group recently appointed by DEFRA can provide the catalyst that is needed to move things forward (VR, June 11, 2005, vol 156, p 755). The threat of epizootic disease is ever present and, with increased global traffic in people, animals and goods, is greater today than even 10 years ago. Speaking in Scotland last month, the BVA President, Dr Bob McCracken, noted that FMD could reappear at any time and that, essentially, there are three lines of defence: keeping the virus out of the country; detecting it rapidly if it appears; and having programmes in place to ensure that it is efficiently eradicated. This is recognised in the AHWS and progress has been made since 2001, particularly with regard to contingency planning. However, concern must remain about the systems in place for rapid detection of disease and, as the BVA President remarked, it is hard to see how this can be accomplished without getting vets on to farms.

The AHWS rightly emphasises the importance of disease prevention, with veterinary practitioners actively contributing to farm animal health plans as well as to national disease surveillance. However, the economics of farming and practice continue to conspire to make this difficult and more effort needs to be devoted to ensuring that veterinary farm health planning is widely applied. Scotland has taken a welcome lead in this area, by making funds available following CAP reform to encourage farmers to work with their veterinary surgeons in managing health and welfare issues on their farms (VR,May 21, 2005, vol 156, p 657). DEFRA, meanwhile, has indicated that limited ‘pump priming’ funds may be available to encourage farm health planning in England, but has still to decide how this can be used to best effect. A sustainable animal health and welfare strategy will depend on sustainable veterinary practice, and it is to be hoped that progress is made soon.

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