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Sustainable livestock production
  1. Nicola Robinson

Abstract

After her veterinary degree, Nicola Robinson did a masters degree in environmental technology during which she carried out some project work for McDonald's to gain experience. She is now the company's agriculture manager

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LIKE many prospective young veterinary students, a passion for the welfare of animals was central to my decision to study for a degree in veterinary science. I was lucky enough to be accepted onto the programme at the University of Bristol in 2004, and began my studies believing that I would spend my career in clinical practice.

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However, in fourth year, I began to develop a strong interest in scientific issues outside of veterinary medicine, namely macro-environmental issues such as climate change and biodiversity loss. These interests proved to be career-defining; in the summer after completing my veterinary degree, I began planning my transition to a job in the environmental/sustainability sector. I soon discovered this would be rather more difficult than I had anticipated. As the sustainability agenda had gained traction in the mainstream, so too had the interest in and competition for sustainability-related roles.

Fortunately, the initial setbacks proved useful. I began to identify the particular types of roles that I was most interested in, and what they were typically looking for in a candidate. A masters degree in sustainability seemed to be a common prerequisite, so I decided to study for a Masters in Environmental Technology at Imperial College London.

Through my studies I gained a deeper understanding of the issues and challenges surrounding the sustainability debate. Critically, the interrelatedness of my veterinary background and the subject I was now studying began to emerge: agriculture – and livestock production in particular – has a significant environmental footprint. With the agricultural sector being the biggest land and water user on the planet, this is hardly surprising.

Sustainable agriculture therefore became not only a topic that I was passionate about, but one in which I realised I could use my technical knowledge and practical experience of the livestock sector that I had gained during vet school.

Knowing from (painful) personal experience the competitive nature of the job market I was about to graduate into, I spent the summer of my masters degree gaining as much experience as I could within the industry, which included delivering a project for the McDonald's European Sustainability team. Following my masters, I found myself in the right place at the right time and was lucky enough to land a permanent role in the team.

McDonald's has a global commitment to source its food and packaging sustainably, and by doing so aims to create value for both its business and society as a whole. As a business, it is in the company's best interest to ensure access to key raw materials over the long term; this can only be achieved by sourcing ingredients in a sustainable way.

The team I now work in is responsible for developing and implementing sustainability initiatives and strategies that span our European supply chain – from the farms that produce the ingredients for our menu items, to the processing facilities that make the French fries, to the lorries that deliver finished products to the restaurants. As agriculture manager, my primary focus within the team is our raw materials. It is a subject area that continues to fascinate me, and I have found the technical and practical understanding I gained as a vet student incredibly useful.

It is exciting to play a role in strategies that, given the reach of the company, can have such a large impact on this agenda: McDonald's in Europe is present in 38 countries, serves an average of almost 15 million customers per day and sources ingredients from around 450,000 European farms.

It is firmly committed to sustainability and good progress has already been made. For example, all of the white fish in ‘Filet-O-Fish’ in Europe is Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certified, a result of McDonald's working with and supporting its existing fisheries to change fishing practices to ensure they were able to meet the rigorous requirements of the MSC scheme. Additionally, all of the coffee served across Europe is sustainably certified.

On a topic perhaps closer to our hearts as veterinary professionals, policies that McDonald's develops on animal welfare have the potential to improve the lives of millions of animals each year. In the UK, the pork used across the entire menu is British, RSPCA-assured pork. This means that the sausage and bacon products are from British farms that meet strict RSPCA welfare standards. Also, all the eggs served on the UK menu are free-range, a switch that was made in 1998.

With beef being such an iconic ingredient, it is of little surprise that sustainable beef has been a top priority for many years. Last year, McDonald's announced a global commitment to begin purchasing verified sustainable beef in 2016. This was a bold move given that, at the time of the announcement, there was no commonly agreed definition of what sustainable beef actually meant. And given the diversity of production systems globally, it was clear that what sustainable beef meant at a farm level had to be defined at the regional or national level. Hence, in Europe, McDonald's is partnering with other progressive industry players through the Sustainable Agriculture Initiative Platform, to enable the industry to define what sustainable beef means for European beef farms. Good animal health and welfare are critical if beef is to be produced sustainably, and I am relishing being part of the team as we continue to work towards this significant milestone.

As global demand for livestock products continues to increase, the area of sustainable livestock production is a challenging and complex one, but also very rewarding. Achieving a sustainable food system is perhaps one of the most pressing challenges of our generation. I believe that vets have a unique set of skills and understanding to contribute towards this, both at practical and strategic levels. As the world seeks to reconcile food production with the ecological limits of the planet, the veterinary profession will – and must – continue to play a vital role in ensuring that animal health and welfare is safeguarded.

I would encourage more vets to let their voices be heard at strategic levels. It offers an indirect but nonetheless potentially powerful opportunity to influence an agenda that we have built our careers on.

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