Harriet Bartlett is a PhD Candidate at the University of Cambridge and a recently appointed NFU Student and Young Farmer Ambassador. She is based in Epping, Essex.
If you asked me what I wanted to do when I was young, I would have said ’sell doughnuts’.
If you asked me when I was a teenager, I would have said ’I don’t know’.
Faced with an impending deadline of university applications, I made the rushed decision to apply to vet school.
It made sense at the time – I loved science and animals, and this was reinforced by placements lambing, on dairy, beef and pig farms.
But in my third year at university, everything changed.
I studied conservation and the environment and learned about the impacts of our livestock systems on nature and the climate.
Even worse, I learned that proposed methods to minimise their impacts was to boost yields (intensify) and spare land for nature – and we thought this would come hand-in-hand with poorer animal welfare and higher antibiotic use and resistance.
When I questioned this, I found that this inevitable trade-off, where we had to choose between ethical production and sustainable production, was based on pretty poor evidence, with studies measuring these things few and far between.
I took a big risk and stopped vet school.
I looked for opportunities to help figure out if it was possible to farm animals without compromising.
I needed to find a PhD program with the flexibility to allow me to try to answer the questions I cared so much about, and I was offered that back at Cambridge.
I am now in the third year of my PhD, working with a broad range of pig farmers (from organic, woodland to fully slatted indoor by-product fed systems), all over the UK and Brazil.
Farm-by-farm (with now more than 70 in total) I collect information and carry out assessments to quantify their land use and impact on biodiversity, carbon footprint, animal welfare and antibiotic use.
I want to make sure that what I do is as useful and relevant as possible, so all farmers that take part are offered a report detailing their scores and how they compare to anonymised other farms.
There is a lack of diverse role models for young people, especially women, in science and agriculture.
I am doing my best to be a visible role model, and shout about the exciting and important opportunities of agricultural sustainability science.
So, while my younger self might be disappointed to find out that I’m not selling doughnuts, she would be pleased to hear that I really love my job.
It has taken me from the Australian outback to Antarctica, and I feel honoured to work with farmers towards a more sustainable future.
If you care about food, the environment and our future, we need you.