At the present time, farm animal health in the UK faces a number of particular challenges that seem constantly to impede any improvement. First, why do we continue to resist collaborative working in the livestock industry? Many of our competitors internationally, including parts of the rest of Europe, Oceania and Canada have managed to achieve this but here in the UK a cultural shift in attitudes is required if farmers are to work together. The devolved administrations have achieved a degree of success but England in particular has largely lacked a collaborative approach.
But to initiate any change of direction of this kind we need long term strategic leadership and any consideration of the present situation immediately reveals significant weaknesses. The Animal Health and Welfare Board for England (AHWBE) is the principal source of departmental advice to Defra ministers on all strategic health and welfare matters relating to livestock in England. The Board’s role is to set the strategic policy framework, using it as the basis for day-to-day advice to ministers and day-to-day operational actions. The sector councils such as the Cattle Health and Welfare Group offer a forum for engagement with stakeholders to feed into the AHWBE. However, with the decline in the capacity of the wider state veterinary service, the Animal and Plant Health Agency which “works to safeguard animal and plant health for the benefit of people, the environment and the economy” cannot deliver strategy effectively. How does this impinge upon governance? The state has increasingly adopted a light touch approach to governance in the animal health sector and continual downward pressure on budgets has eroded state infrastructure and morale. There is now a significant risk that strategic direction is not being clearly delivered by the state despite an ongoing expectation and aspiration to retain policy control. The cycle of general election and party politics has also too frequently undermined the opportunities for delivery of a long-term strategic vision, replaced instead with a series of short-term bids for quick wins. There is a lack of a clear delivery model.
The major pressure for producers at the moment comes, of course, from the global downturn in commodities and punishing supply-demand cycling that as undermined their confidence to re-invest in farm infrastructure. Consumers demand cheap food as a right and this is constantly prioritised over quality. This helps to stifle inflation but creates a disconnect between consumer expectations and the ability of farming systems to deliver high-welfare, environmentally-friendly products.
Many of the businesses upon which we depend for our food security are in crisis, but the banking sector, alongside the Rural Payments Agency, exacerbates their problems. Farming has been let down in comparison with other industries; current budgetary constraints are a consequence of a banking crisis that culminated in tax payer bail out and yet we will not invest public funds to support UK farmers. The failure to invest £405 million of funds by UK treasury to access £405 million of EU rural development funding is, in my view, unacceptable. This support could have been accessed two years ago; it has been well-used elsewhere in the EU as a result of more supportive government policy in other countries.
What other lessons could we learn from producers in other parts of Europe and beyond? We could certainly follow the example of countries such as Denmark or, increasingly, Ireland, in implementing a more joined up approach to data collection and application. Better quality data would help guide decision making, and the application of precision farming methods, which could help boost UK animal health. A more positive approach to farming and animal health professions would also help to encourage young people into the industry, which does not enjoy the aspirational status in the UK that it does in countries such as New Zealand. Our failure to retain talent in livestock research and management risks compromising the ability of the UK to develop and compete in a global economy for food and animal health. And where we do achieve excellent blue sky research how well does this translate from research institutes into the grass roots farming industry? Failure to navigate the “valley of death” of research into practice is a recognised priority for UK animal health.
Plenty of problems then, but how do I think we should be addressing them at all levels? For starters, I would advocate the establishment of Animal Health UK (AHUK): an organisation to deliver a strategic vision for farm animal health in the UK is what’s required in the context of a light touch state without resources to invest. Animal Health Ireland is among a number of examples of similar solutions elsewhere. AHUK would operate as a not for profit company, including state and private industry, with levy bodies, farming and veterinary organisations working with key science such as Cattle Health Certification Standards (CheCS) and including laboratories and endemic health scheme providers. This organisation would retain ownership and manage the conflicts as they emerge. However, this must be a genuine confederation of stakeholders and not an initiative hijacked by a single lobby group.
Strategic 5-10 year plans for farm animal health are in play for key issues such as bovine TB (bTB) and Bovine Viral Diarrhoea (BVD) eradication, but how are they co-ordinated and by whom are they delivered? What does the joined up strategic vision look like when constructed? AHUK could take action to join together a number of disparate strategies and lobby for supportive legislation where appropriate. BVD eradication including biosecurity management regarding boundaries, purchased stock and data access, offer a bridge between public good and commercial industry priorities by offering cross benefit to the bTB eradication cause. Farm health planning offered a unifying theme several years ago as part of the animal health and welfare strategy.
What about consumer demands for information on place of origin and clear labelling? Lack of transparency in this area is inhibiting the ability of producers to add value and use points of difference effectively in marketing. The pig industry has recently achieved breakthroughs, but similar clarity has not been achieved in the dairy cattle industry. Consumer choice cannot operate effectively without this; let’s legislate for clear labelling.
As far as data collection is concerned, multiple initiatives are now constructing a variety of significant data platforms for the UK livestock industry. Joining these together could offer a key step in delivering aspirations for improvement - as long as we have a clear ownership structure and conflict management plan, such as offered by AHUK. The emergence of sensing technologies at increasingly affordable prices is offering real potential for “Big Data” to feed back from commercial farms, not only to inform research priorities, but also to support the replacement for what was a state-owned disease surveillance network.
And what can we do to stop the drain of talent from the UK? Veterinary surgeons in practice, farmers in the industry and biological scientists all too often seek their fortune abroad. Retention of talent in the farm animal health sector may be more of an issue than attracting initial entrance. Effective knowledge exchange requires effective lifelong learning structures and career pathways for all these components of the vital people resource of our sector. We have to be able to offer people a satisfying career that will keep them engaged over their whole working life.
Finally, what about the gulf between research and practice? There do seem to be some bright spots on that horizon. The recent initiation of the family of Agri-Tech research centres of excellence offers a long awaited opportunity to deliver transformational research into the UK livestock centre. The Centre for Innovation Excellence in Livestock (CIEL) has a key role in connecting blue sky research with commercial livestock production and exporting expertise abroad.
Thus, it’s not all doom and gloom. But more joined-up leadership and more creative thinking are needed to ensure the future of our livestock industry and, indeed, the food security of the UK.