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Changing environment; new perspectives

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WITH its theme of ‘Vets in a changing environment’, this year's bva Congress not only considered changes in vets' working environment; it also looked at how the environment itself is changing as result of man's activities. Giving the plenary Wooldridge Memorial Lecture on the challenges presented by climate change, defra's chief scientist, Professor Robert Watson, left little room to doubt that the Earth's climate is changing as a result of human activities and that, if the process is allowed to continue unchecked, the consequences will be severe. He presented a stark vision of the future in which, with global warming, the wet areas of the world will become wetter and the dry areas drier, making food production more difficult in regions where this is already a problem. People living in the delta regions of the world will be vulnerable to rising sea levels and there will be increased potential for conflict as people are displaced and competition for basic resources, particularly water, intensifies. It will not be possible simply to adapt to climate change, he said; there is a need to limit it and mitigate its effects.

Food security was also an issue, although it remained to be seen whether recent increases in world food prices represented a ‘blip’ or were a harbinger of worse to come. What was clear was that agriculture could not be thought of in terms of food production alone and needed to be conducted in an environmentally sustainable way. Professor Watson also drew attention to the changing animal disease patterns that might be expected as a result of climate change. He asked whether the veterinary profession was ready for this, and whether the necessary surveillance systems were in place.

Many people see the arrival of bluetongue in northern Europe as being attributable to climate change and, given current concern about bluetongue, it is not surprising that a congress session giving an update on the disease was full. With bluetongue virus serotype 8 (btv-8) having been confirmed for the first time in Sweden last month, the disease has moved further north than ever before. However, the conference heard how btv-8 is not the only serotype of concern in Europe at present and that other serotypes can be expected to extend their range further (see pp 406-407 of this issue).

Other sessions at the congress explored the contribution that the veterinary profession can make towards meeting the disease and other challenges of the changing environment, and how well placed it is to do so. A debate entitled ‘Cull or let live?’ on the different control strategies that can be adopted in relation to different disease situations was clearly relevant in this context, as, indeed was a debate on sharing costs and responsibility for animal health. The debate on disease control emphasised the importance of preventing disease in the first place; it also made clear that, in the event of an outbreak, decisions could not be made solely on animal health grounds, and that other factors, including public perception and economic and trade implications also had to be taken into account.

Arguments about responsibility and cost sharing seem likely to come to a head over the next few months as the Government prepares to consult on the issue and the European Commission develops plans to introduce it as part of the Community Animal Health Strategy. Points to emerge during the congress debate were that other countries are ahead of the uk on cost and responsibility sharing and that there are practical advantages that need to be explored. It was suggested that the difficulties surrounding this issue are partly due to the fragmented and competitive nature of the livestock sector in the uk, but the point was well made that someone has to take the lead in this area to avoid a vacuum in which important diseases don't get dealt with at all.

Another debate considered what could be done to reduce the impact of the livestock sector on climate change and the environment, and the part that veterinary surgeons can play in this process. Areas identified included research, advising on nutrition, reducing the impact of disease and helping to develop more sustainable production systems. A contribution from Mrs Helen Browning, an organic farmer and chairman of the Animal Health and Welfare Strategy England Implementation Group, provided an interesting perspective on what a farmer wants from a vet, which suggested that the veterinary profession itself could take a broader view of its future role.

In his Wooldridge lecture, Professor Watson made the point that the future is not preordained and that it should be possible to limit changes in the Earth's climate and manage ecosystems in a more sustainable way. However, he said, the changes in policy, practices and technologies required are substantial and not currently under way. Cost-effective and equitable solutions were and could become available, but political and moral leadership was required, and public and private sector decision makers needed to take a longer-term perspective. His remarks mainly concerned the need to reach international agreement on how to tackle climate change, but he pointed out that change was needed at every level, right down to the individual. It is worth giving more thought to how they might apply to livestock production and the specific role that vets can play.

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