Raising more sustainable animals? Yes, but with an animal’s eye.


Frans Mulders

President of the KNMvD Cluster Farm Animal Association, the Professional Association of Veterinarians

When the nitrogen debate erupted in full force earlier this year, veterinarians sat daily at table with farmers, most of whom were in great uncertainty over nitrogen policy. The KNMvD has also received letters from vets who are having trouble sleeping because of it. But what should you do with this as a professional association of veterinarians? Is this a file we should ever share?

Put the animal in center stage

In the meantime, I’ve heard more and more in the public media about ways to reduce nitrogen emissions: housing, food, and circular farming systems. The media mainly talked about seemingly conflicting interests in economics and nature, but rarely about the focal point of livestock farming: the animal itself. Whereas, nitrogen-reducing measures in livestock, in addition to severe consequences for the ranchers themselves, can also have a significant impact on the health and well-being of their animals. This was the reason why the KNMvD took a stand in the nitrogen debate along with the Utrecht University School of Veterinary Medicine and called on the government to put the animal at the center of the transition to more sustainable animal breeding.

Currently, animals are often the weakest link in the food production value chain

As veterinarians, we see the importance of animals in future circular food systems. Both to convert the remaining streams of food production into high-quality proteins, but also to reuse animal manure for fertile soil. As far as we are concerned, healthy animals with good welfare are the starting point. But in the food production value chain, animals are often the weakest link at the moment. Without a future revenue model, ranchers will soon not be able to invest in animal health and welfare, which means that there is a risk that our animals will soon pay the price for reorganization in livestock.

Search and routing

The same danger threatens with technical solutions such as low-emission stables or feed modifications. In principle, these technologies can contribute to solving the nitrogen problem. At the same time, these “end of the tube” solutions may also lead to health and welfare problems for animals, for example due to poorer barn climate or metabolic problems. The latter also plays a role in the desired shift to circular farming, whereby animals become dependent on the remaining flows of the food chain. In order to protect the health and welfare of animals, the further sustainability of livestock farming should be supported by researching the impacts of the proposed policy. In addition, the company-wide transition must be supervised by someone who is sensitive to the interests of animals and can properly monitor the effects on animal health and welfare. Veterinarians can play an important role in this matter as an expert advisor and confidential advisor.

One approach to health

The health of people, animals and nature are intertwined in a complex way. This insight has led to the realization that problems at the interface of these areas must be addressed in an integrated and interdisciplinary manner. As veterinarians, we miss such a “One Health” approach to the discussion about sustainability.

Lessons from the past show that such an approach is important. Earlier it became clear that livestock in livestock can pose a public health risk due to transmission of infectious diseases such as Q fever or bird flu. On the other hand, healthy animals also make a positive contribution to the health of people and nature through the production of natural and high-quality food and opportunities for agricultural nature management.

The fact that recognition of the intrinsic value of animals as sentient living beings forms the basis of our animal law, obligates us as a society to properly protect animal interests. Therefore, put animal health and welfare at the center of the policy development process for more sustainable animal breeding.

multidisciplinary veterinary network

An integrated consideration of all interests should aim for a positive spiral: progressively better health for people, animals and nature. Partial solutions should be dealt with positively in view of achieving the desired goal. So the debate about more sustainable animal husbandry must be about much more than just nitrogen emissions. Water and soil quality, reducing the risk of zoonoses, and promoting animal welfare are also important. Dutch society can build on a multidisciplinary network of veterinary knowledge that includes, in addition to practice, research, education, government and industry.

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