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‘Many questions, few answers’

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‘“Progress? What progress?” We hear hollow laughter reverberating around farmhouse kitchens and industry boardrooms at the notion that any steps forward have been taken after a year that brought little but disaster for those involved in commercial animal keeping. One after another, avian flu, foot-and-mouth and bluetongue have beleaguered farmers, with massive rises in feed costs and energy prices, floods and the ongoing trials of bovine tb converging to create a real crisis for almost all meat producers. This is no crying wolf. If farmers were operating solely as the business people they are so often exhorted to be, many of them would be exiting rapidly now. Indeed, in some sectors they already are.’

So says the England Implementation Group (eig) — the committee established by defra in June 2005 to ‘drive forward delivery of the vision and strategic aims of the Animal Health and Welfare Strategy for Great Britain (ahws) in England’ — at the start of a report published last week discussing progress to date. The committee goes further, remarking: ‘Livestock farmers aren't the only ones considering their future. With significant budget cuts — including, ironically and short-sightedly, in animal health and welfare — and major staff reductions in prospect, many defra officials must also be weighing up their options. For an organisation in the midst of internal restructuring, strategy review and cost cutting, dealing with a stream of exotic disease crises is no easy task.’

Nevertheless, against this difficult backdrop, and despite the many frustrations, the eig reports that progress is being made. It says that the overall response to recent disease outbreaks shows that lessons have been learned since the foot-and-mouth disease outbreak of 2001. It also says that while some might see the ahws as being irrelevant in these traumatic times ‘a wider perspective puts it centre stage, not just in dealing with today's problems, but in underpinning recovery — a way forward for industry and the rural economy’.

The eig's report gives a rousing account of various initiatives being developed in England under the ahws, welcoming, for example, the ‘gathering pace’ of health and welfare councils in different sectors of the industry. It reports that cattle and sheep councils have now been established, joining the Pig Health and Welfare Strategy Council, which was launched in 2004, and that the poultry industry has recently committed itself to introducing a similar structure. It notes that the Equine Health and Welfare Strategy was launched in March last year, that an industry health and welfare strategy for farmed trout is close to publication, and that the companion animal sector is beginning to formulate initiatives for its most significant species. It also draws attention to various regional initiatives but remarks that, while some regions have made ‘great strides’, implementation is patchy and that ‘while all regions have initiatives that contribute to the ahws, they often appear uncoordinated so that opportunities for synergy are lost’. Details of the different initiatives are given in the elg's web-based implementation plan at www.defra.gov.uk/animalh/ahws/eip/index.htm.

On the issue of responsibility and cost sharing, the eig is convinced that ‘if the opportunity is well used, the responsibility and cost sharing agenda provides both a real prospect for industry to take livestock health into its own hands, and to establish mechanisms to encourage best practice’. It also believes it offers an opportunity to reduce the cost of animal disease overall, and ‘to shift fundamentally the relationship between Government and industry to mutual benefit’. However, it says, the potential pitfalls are legion and ministerial impatience to move quickly on cost sharing has come close to derailing hard won progress. Despite the difficulties the eig believes that cost sharing is inevitable and that the whole of the supply chain should be involved in developing mechanisms to encourage and support better animal health and welfare.

The eig has rightly been concerned about future provision of farm animal veterinary services and says it is keen to see the veterinary profession and defra develop strategic plans to this end. It welcomes the reinvigoration of the Vets and Veterinary Services Group which is looking into this matter under the chairmanship of Professor Philip Lowe (see VR, July 7, 2007, vol 161, p 36) and anticipates useful outcomes during 2008.

On the specific issue of bovine tb, the eig describes the increasing incidence as ‘immensely depressing’ and finds it ‘incredible’ that farmers are still in limbo, awaiting political decisions on the way forward.

Concluding, the eig says that there has been some progress in implementing the ahws, ‘in process if not result’. Given the extent of the task, this is not altogether surprising. The eig is, after all, a relatively small committee with relatively limited powers in that, while it can encourage change and monitor progress, it cannot actually implement change itself. That, ultimately, is a challenge for everyone concerned. The group also remarks that there are ‘many questions and few answers’, but points out that ‘if the market does not play its part in supporting the high levels of health and welfare that we want and need in England, then not only will the strategy fail, but we will further erode our productive capacity, and with it the many benefits that livestock bring to our country and environment.’ In view of this, and against the backdrop so graphically described at the beginning of the report, questions might also be asked about whether the Government's input is adequate.

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