Access to more and better data key to delivering high standards of animal welfare and sustainable food production

A comprehensive, ‘One Health’ approach to animal husbandry recognises that animal, human and environmental health are interdependent, report Brian Johnson and Ana Gallego.
Smart livestock farming

By Brian Johnson and Ana Gallego

Brian Johnson is Managing Editor of The Parliament Magazine Ana Gallego is a junior reporter and audiovisual journalist at The Parliament Magazine

18 Sep 2020

Access to more and better data, as well as training for farmers on how to use digital technologies, will be key to delivering high standards of animal welfare and sustainable food production.

This was one of the key messages from a recent webinar on the future of Europe’s livestock sector, organised by The Parliament magazine and AnimalhealthEurope.

Opening the discussion on 9 September, the Secretary-General of AnimalhealthEurope Roxane Feller, “welcomed the opportunity that the online event - the organisation’s first – provided, to discuss high-level policy issues such as the Farm to Fork and One Health strategies, through the lens of the animal health sector”.

The almost 500 registered participants, she suggested, demonstrated the depth of interest in the future of Europe’s livestock sector and an understanding of what sustainability measures will entail for animal health and welfare in livestock production.

Moderating, Brussels-based journalist Dave Keating told participants that the webinar - entitled, ‘Smaller, greener... healthier? Livestock farming in Europe: what does sustainability look like?’ - came at a pivotal moment, following “two important pieces of policy that emerged in the past year, the Green Deal and the Farm to Fork Strategy.”

“The fact that recent epidemics, from Ebola, to SARS, to west Nile virus are zoonotic has important implications on our farming practises. It also shows more than ever that animal health matters" European Commissioner for Health and Food Safety, Stella Kyriakides

In a specially recorded video message, European Commissioner for Health and Food Safety, Stella Kyriakides, said the COVID-19 pandemic had highlighted the importance of a multisectoral, ‘One Health’ approach; one that recognises that animal, human and environmental health are interdependent.

“The fact that recent epidemics, from Ebola, to SARS, to west Nile virus are zoonotic has important implications on our farming practises. It also shows more than ever that animal health matters. These outbreaks raise awareness of the links between our own health and the health of our ecosystems.”

Kyriakides added that the new Biodiversity and Farm to Fork Strategies are set to provide tools and targets to address current imbalances and promote a more prevention-driven approach to animal health.

“One of the lessons learnt from the ongoing crisis is that animal health surveillance systems play an important role in anticipating, detecting and containing outbreaks. This should be increasingly integrated with surveillance systems for human health.”

The Commissioner said she was “delighted” to hear how members of AnimalhealthEurope have been active on vaccines, diagnostic and digital monitoring tools, biosecurity measures and innovative feed and housing methods. “It is also clear that EU citizens care about animal welfare; that underlines the importance of animal health as a prior requisite for animal welfare.”

"We need science, we need research, and we need to know what will happen to Europe’s food sector when it comes to implementing the Farm to Fork Strategy and the Biodiversity Strategy” Chair of the European Parliament’s Agriculture and Rural Development Committee, Norbert Lins

German centre right MEP Norbert Lins kicked off the debate with a speech sketching out the role of animal health in the context of the Green Deal and the Farm to Fork Strategy.

Lins, Chair of the European Parliament’s influential Agriculture and Rural Development (AGRI) Committee, reiterated that one of the key aspects of the Farm to Fork Strategy is to make the livestock sector more sustainable and to improve animal welfare and health.

“Farm to Fork should promote the most-sustainable, carbon-efficient methods of livestock production. That doesn’t mean I support anything or anyone that wants to end livestock farming, meat production or consumption in Europe.”

“Yes, we do need to find innovative solutions, and yes, we need to be more sustainable, but this needs to be via viable solutions for the livestock farming sector.”

“Those of us working in the animal health industry believe that taking a holistic approach to animal husbandry is the future, one that is fully aligned with the One Health Approach" AnimalhealthEurope Management Committee Chair Julie Vermooten

Opening a panel discussion on what sustainability within Europe’s livestock farming sector could look like, AnimalhealthEurope Management Committee Chair Julie Vermooten said, “If we’re really concerned about human health, then we should be equally concerned about the importance of animal health”.

“Those of us working in the animal health industry believe that taking a holistic approach to animal husbandry is the future, one that is fully aligned with the One Health Approach, as highlighted by Commissioner Kyriakides.”

A One Health Approach, suggested Vermooten, would make the engagement between humans, farm animals, and the environment more balanced and rewarding.

“No single farming system could currently deliver on all the three pillars of sustainably (economy, society, and the environment). However, our industry believes regular veterinary visits, quality animal health management, and preventative vaccination, when possible, can take us there.”

This approach, combined with effective biosecurity measures, appropriate housing and nutrition, training on new techniques, and other measures, could, she argued, deliver a “comprehensive approach” to animal husbandry.

“Farmers need to know and to understand how the health of their livestock affects their farm’s environmental footprint and its economics. But they can’t make changes if they don’t have the data and the information to support this” Livestock Sustainability Consultant Jude Capper

Livestock Sustainability Consultant Jude Capper agreed that there was no “one size fits all” solution to delivering sustainability and argued that, “too often we see that there is a real or a perceived dichotomy between efficiency and productivity, and animal health and welfare.”

“We’ve really got to work harder to bridge that gap to understand animal behaviour, animal welfare, animal health and productivity, and see where we can improve all of these metrics concurrently”.

Data, she suggested, would be a crucial factor in driving change for a more sustainable environment. “Farmers need to know and to understand how the health of their livestock affects their farm’s environmental footprint and its economics. But they can’t make changes if they don’t have the data and the information to support this.”

Capper said the livestock sector needed to embrace the latest technology to improve animal health, both for direct disease prevention treatment and for optimising environmental and nutrition management. “We’ve got to do this in a holistic manner, not just on the farm but all the way through the chain so that farmers, vets, the animal health industry, retailers, and processors are all involved in making these changes.”

“I think AnimalhealthEurope can play an important role not only in achieving a One Health food sector but also a sustainable one, because there can be no sustainable food system without animal production” IFOAM Organics Europe’s Kurt Sannen

IFOAM Organics Europe’s Kurt Sannen, who has transitioned from conventional to organic farming, suggested that “what happened on my farm can be inspirational for the transition we need at European level.”

Sannen highlighted how Common Agricultural Policy rules and subsidies can directly impact on “how we evolve as farmers” and said that the Farm to Fork strategy provides clear guidance on how to make European agriculture more sustainable.

He argued that Europe should invest more in organic farming methods and in better research on organic agriculture in order to improve productivity. “I think we can be more productive, but the question is not whether we need to produce more; it’s not a question of ‘efficiency’, but rather ‘sufficiency’. Can we produce what we need in a sustainable way in Europe?”

Martin Scholten, Director of Animal Sciences at Wageningen University in the Netherlands, told participants that sustainable livestock and healthy livestock were essentially two sides of the same coin.

“There is no sustainable livestock when don’t care about the health of the animals and vice versa,” he said, adding, “I think we really need a smart, balanced approach with transformation, transition, and reduction.”

“We need a diverse food sector, we need a diverse livestock sector, so probably the livestock sector of the future will be very different from the livestock sector we have now” Martin Scholten, Director of Animal Sciences at Wageningen University

Sustainability, he argued, is related to diversity. “We need a diverse food sector, we need a diverse livestock sector, so probably the livestock sector of the future will be very different from the livestock sector we have now.”

So what role would animal healthcare play in this new world? Scholten said that in the future, livestock would need to become more resilient. “But that requires a preventative animal health situation.”

"The question is not whether we need to produce more; it’s not a question of ‘efficiency’, but rather ‘sufficiency’. Can we produce what we need in a sustainable way in Europe?”

Rounding off a lively discussion, which saw many areas of agreement among the panellists, Vermooten emphasised the important role that data and digital technology will play in delivering sustainability and called for the creation of a stakeholder platform for digitalisation in farming – as well as training for farmers on how to make the most of it.

Lins said the discussion had provided “a lot of food for thought” for EU policymakers, and his colleagues in the AGRI Committee, as they work through the legislation on the Farm to Fork and Biodiversity strategies.

"Animal health is a precondition for good animal welfare and for sustainable food production. It’s on us, as the animal health industry, to provide the tools for this, including access to data, and it’s on the EU to ensure farmers receive training on how to use these tools and the data for optimising animal health management” Secretary-General of AnimalhealthEurope Roxane Feller

He echoed the views of many panellists on the need for further research and data, saying, “I think it’s right that we ask for proper impact assessments when it comes to these strategies. We need science, we need research, and we need to know what will happen to Europe’s food sector when it comes to implementing the Farm to Fork Strategy and the Biodiversity Strategy.”

Concluding, Roxanne Feller said, “Animal health is a precondition for good animal welfare and for sustainable food production. It’s on us, as the animal health industry, to provide the tools for this, including access to data, and it’s on the EU to ensure farmers receive training on how to use these tools and the data for optimising animal health management.”

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