Sustainability in livestock farming is a matter of balance

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Stakeholder Opinion

[AnimalhealthEurope]

This article is part of our special report Exploring sustainability in the EU livestock sector.

Sustainability is a balancing act. This goes for every sector, but none more so than the livestock sector, one of Europe’s key focus areas in the EU Green Deal.

Roxane Feller is the Secretary-General of AnimalhealthEurope.

Repeating comments by Germany’s Agriculture Minister for Food and Agriculture Julia Klöckner during a July meeting of the European Parliament’s ENVI Committee meeting – “Organic farming isn’t the holy grail and conventional farming isn’t the devil. Organic farming must become more efficient and conventional farmers must become more sustainable. It’s an opportunity for us all to work together.” [taken from the English translation] – I can say that when it comes that desired balance for true sustainability, I couldn’t agree more.

When you take animal health as the pivotal point for livestock farming, the balancing act becomes a much easier task. Any well-established and practised animal health management plan will deliver on the three main pillars of sustainability.

Taking the social aspect first, any sustainable business should have the support of its employees and the community it operates in, as well as the support of the consumers it serves.

Social acceptance is growing in influence and due care must be taken to not let emotion and opinion outweigh what matters: securing a sustainable food supply at affordable prices that is respectful of both the environment and animal welfare.

Animal health is a prerequisite for good animal welfare. Veterinary vaccines and medicines help to prevent and treat animal diseases, as well as reduce pain and discomfort. And in terms of our shared health, healthy animals are the cornerstone of Europe’s high levels of food safety.

Careful animal health management focused on prevention also reduces the occurrence of bacterial infections, and therefore the need to use antibiotics.

Healthy animals also deliver on the environmental pillar. Efficiencies that are beneficial for our environment are most often created when herds or flocks benefit from good health. Innovative tools can be implemented by farmers which help with monitoring factors such as feed intake, weight, temperature, etc. assisting with more targeted management of animals both individually and as a group.

Healthy animals require fewer natural resource inputs like feed and water as they move through the production system, so excess need for such inputs can be avoided. Livestock can also consume crop residues and other by-products that could otherwise become an environmental burden as 86% of livestock feed is not suitable for human consumption.

Well-managed animals can also lead to a 30% decrease in greenhouse gas emissions according to the Food and Agriculture Organisation. And in terms of biodiversity, grazing animals help to maintain grasslands that act as important carbon traps and cannot be used to grow other foods.

And finally on the economic pillar, ensuring the viability of livestock farming is also linked to the creation of efficiencies. This means using the necessary animal health tools and services to reduce animal mortality and avoid any food or other product losses directly at farm level.

Taking parasite infections in sheep for example – which can also apply to other grazing animals – such infections can lead to losses in milk yield, along with slower growth, and even reduced wool production. So by ensuring accurate attention to the animals in their care, farmers can run their farms efficiently and sustainably.

There is not one sole example of a farming system that will deliver optimally on all three pillars of sustainability.

The animal health industry believes that sustainable livestock production systems are those where there are regular veterinary visits, good animal health management plans, use of preventive vaccines where possible, good biosecurity measures and housing, appropriate nutrition and careful attention to animal well-being, on both a group and individual basis.

In short, Animal Health Matters in all different farming systems, no matter the size, no matter the degree of inputs used. All means that support sustainable practices should be both included and incentivised via the EU Farm to Fork Strategy and its subsequent measures if we are to achieve the balance needed for a fair transition.

Progress made so far in Europe deserves recognition. This will go a long way in maintaining not only balance but the continuity of our food supply. Europe’s farmers are in a great majority heading towards senior years.

Eurostat figures state that only 11% of farm managers in the EU were under the age of 40 years in 2018.

So ensuring that all progress is recognised and that farmers can access all the tools they need to perform their job in a sustainable and rewarding manner is an important step in attracting new young farmers to agriculture and ensuring the vitality of Europe’s rural areas.

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