Rewarding those that go above and beyond in animal welfare is not simple, says British Veterinary Association (BVA) president Simon Doherty.
The recognition of animal health and welfare as public goods in the new Agriculture Bill was a welcome sight for vets.
BVA has been calling for this acknowledgement for some time and to see it written into legislation was a reassurance that standards in this area should be maintained and hopefully improved post-Brexit.
However, as with much of post-Brexit policy, the devil will be in the detail. Rewarding those that go above and beyond in animal welfare is not simple.
The government has proposed that it will pilot schemes that offer payments to those farmers who deliver welfare outcomes that are higher than the legislative minimum and it will introduce schemes that reward new approaches to improve welfare outcomes that are not industry standard.
Need for detail
All well and good, but more detail is needed on how these proposals could be realised.
BVA has recommended an animal welfare stewardship programme, based on the principles of environmental stewardship schemes, which reward land management practices that benefit the environment.
It would compensate for the additional costs of improving animal welfare outcomes, alongside providing incentives to support continuing and long-term investment into these activities.
Concerns have been raised that a system of public goods runs the risk of simply rewarding farmers for not committing animal welfare breaches rather than for improving animal welfare.
Most farmers already practise high animal welfare standards and we must be sure that the new system rewards those who make an active contribution to animal welfare and that there is proper monitoring and enforcement to ensure the systems are working how they should.
By using objective evidence-based animal welfare outcome safeguards that are agreed by farmers, industry and vets, we believe this will allow this to be done in a way that facilitates continuous improvement.
The expertise of farmers and vets in this area will be key to getting the legislation right and the symbiotic relationship between farmers and vets will be central for it to work on the ground.
More than ever it will be important for the two professions to operate together towards ensuring animal welfare standards are upheld and improved.
Recent research published in May 2018 by the National Farm Research Unit showed that 40 per cent of farmers were planning to invest in animal welfare, making it the single biggest focus of investment ahead of spending on infrastructure and working capital.
The reason being that farmers believe high welfare standards are vital to making UK farming globally competitive and as guardians of animal welfare, vets are vital to monitoring and maintaining standards in this area.
Power of the consumer
We also should not forget the power of market forces and the consumers in this conversation.
However we decide to define and reward animal health and welfare it must be in a way that makes sense to consumers so they can make a link to the food they buy.
In our response to the government’s consultation paper ‘Health and Harmony’, BVA supported the government’s proposal to provide clear information to consumers on ways to support higher health and welfare through their purchasing choices.
Farm assurance schemes have already made important inroads into identifying measurable animal welfare outcomes and this could help provide an infrastructure for the development of animal welfare stewardship programmes.
There needs to be a system to distinguish the schemes and what they offer and BVA has developed seven principles that aim to guide consumers in their consideration of farm assurance schemes and to help ensure that animal health and welfare standards are further embedded in schemes as they develop post-Brexit.
It seems that the animal welfare of the food we produce and eat is high on the agenda for vets, farmers, the public and industry.
With Brexit providing this opportunity to rethink the policy, let’s make sure we work together to get it right.
Simon will be speaking at a BVA talk at the London Vet Show on November 15, titled: ‘Is Brexit good or bad for animal welfare?’ alongside Efra Committee member Angela Smith.
He can be found tweeting at @simondocvet