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Should vets eat less meat?
  1. Josh Loeb

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With demonstrations about climate change in full swing on the streets of London, the BVA could scarcely have chosen a more fitting time to unveil its new position on sustainable agriculture.

Its 15-page paper on this critical subject, released last week, was packed full of future-proofing insight on such topics as edible insects and genetically engineered goats.

However, the element likely to generate most debate was its call for people to reduce their consumption of animal-derived products (VR, 20 April 2019, vol 184, p 490).

The BVA’s favoured approach involves eating ‘less and better’. Under this vision ‘some citizens’ would maintain a similar weekly spend on their groceries but would eat less meat, dairy products, eggs, and so on.

In other words, consume animal-derived products less frequently and, when you do, opt for more expensive products associated with higher health and welfare. Also, minimise waste – so use the whole carcase when cooking a chicken, for example. The theory is that by doing this you will save money and thereby be more able to afford those pricier, higher welfare products.

What is the ‘right’ level of consumption of animal products?

There are legitimate questions to be asked about the finer points of this. If the aim is not for everyone to become vegan (and it isn’t) then what is the ‘right’ level of consumption of animal products?

Also, wouldn’t the amount of money left over for shoppers to spend on that higher welfare meat depend on the cost of their groceries overall, including any animal product substitutes? Soya milk costs more than dairy milk, so consuming less animal-derived products would not necessarily leave shoppers with more leftover cash in their pockets.

But these are minor quibbles. The principle behind the ‘less and better’ slogan is commendable, and the paper appears intended to serve as a springboard for further discussion, not as an endpoint.

Global consumption of animal-derived food is expected to double by 2050. Highlighting welfare issues for farm animals is a moral imperative, therefore.

As one vet said to me: ‘One response to population growth would be for us vets to clap our hands at the prospect of more mouths to feed and stand side-by-side with farmers as we’ve always done and just crank up production of meat and dairy.’

But from a land use and welfare perspective, that approach is unlikely to meet most people’s definition of ‘sustainable’.

Disruptive agricultural technologies involving lab-grown meat (which went unmentioned in the BVA’s policy paper) may yet in time provide part, or even all, of the answer. In the meantime, countries like the UK and professions like the veterinary profession have an obligation to show leadership.

There is an evident appetite for taking a stand here. A mini survey conducted among BVA Voice of the Veterinary Profession panel members this year showed the vast majority want vets to play a more active role in the sustainability agenda.

Also in 2015 the joint BVA and RCVS Vet Futures report set an ambition for the profession to be more ‘assertive’ – including on environmental and sustainability issues, yet this is still regarded as new and uncharted territory by many vets.

The BVA has previously said that it is not its role to make statements that may be interpreted as infringing on client choice. But it already takes stances on such topics of contention as brachycephalic dogs and non-stun slaughter.

Given the key role played by animals in our food production system, why shouldn’t the profession express opinions about the best way in which to feed the world?

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