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Vets in two minds about organic farming
  1. Josh Loeb

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Sales of organic produce in the UK soared last year, mirroring trends in Europe and the USA. Research comparing the health and welfare of livestock on organic farms with those on conventional farms is thus relevant. As guardians of animal health and welfare, vets’ perceptions of organic farming are also worth capturing.

Organic farming can impinge on veterinary decision making – something that has been known to cause frustration. For example, the Soil Association’s organic scheme, the largest in the UK, restricts the use of some vaccines given to ewes before lambing. Some vets feel this restriction is unduly limiting.

Vet Record approached a number of UK vets to hear their thoughts on organic farming. Their answers were nuanced. Several were sympathetic towards the objectives underlying the organic movement, but at the same time said they viewed the organic label as essentially a marketing device.

Research published this week in Vet Record (p 384) echoes this. A survey of American cattle vets showed they tend not to be opposed to organic farming yet have qualms about it.

Around 90 per cent of survey respondents disagreed with the proposition that organically farmed livestock is healthier than conventionally raised livestock. Most thought animal health depended primarily on the quality of herd management rather than whether a farm and its produce had been certified as organic.

Some also reported concerns about poor animal welfare ‘due to late or no treatment’ of sick animals on organic farms.

That vets possess intellectual curiosity about organic farming but feel conflicted about it should come as no surprise. The organic ethos dovetails nicely with One Health commitments about the responsible use of medicines as well as with efforts to enable animals to express natural behaviours (for example, the Soil Association bans the use of farrowing crates on the basis that they prevent sows from expressing natural instincts). On the other hand, the organic movement places significant emphasis on ‘alternative’ therapies with unproven efficacy. As scientists, many vets feel uncomfortable about this.

Furthermore, several studies have indicated that organic farming is better for insect biodiversity than intensive farming. Not using insecticides is, unsurprisingly, good for insects – but it can arguably be bad for farmed animals by causing higher levels of some parasites.

Organic farmers appear less likely than other farmers to use a vet as their ‘primary resource for animal health’

But for vets, the salient point from the research is that organic farmers in the USA appear less likely than conventional farmers to use a vet as their ‘primary resource for animal health’. Qualitative studies carried out in Europe have mapped similar trends. The gulf may arise from the organic movement’s innate distrust of chemically synthesised allopathic medicines. Whatever the reason, it’s a sad state of affairs, since even if a client wishes not to use certain medicines, vets are still a valuable source of advice about management practises.

One caveat to note is that the study published this week focused on the USA, which has more rigid organic rules than Europe. For example, to qualify as organic in the USA an animal must not have been treated with antibiotics – ever. This is not the case in the UK or EU.

The market places a premium on organic food, and the lucrative nature of the sector means it is unlikely to fade any time soon. Efforts are therefore required to ensure vets and the organic farming community do not become further alienated from each other.

When farmers and vets stop talking it is the animals that suffer.

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