Animals, people and the environment

Animals have a footprint on our planet and interact with it in a number of ways. Domestic and wild animals have different impacts and all of these are now influenced by humans in some way. There is little pristine wilderness left on the planet.

Scale of livestock production

One of the key areas of Vetwork’s activities and interests lies within supporting relatively small scale sustainable livestock production systems e.g. traditional pastoralism and mixed livestock cropping systems of resource poor farmers. Vetwork is interested to ensure that small farmers and pastoralists are allowed to develop and access markets in an equitable way, and that traditional rights and mechanisms are respected and allowed to evolve in ways that support people to either improve their livestock dependant livelihoods or to transition to alternative livelihoods.  Achievement of this objective is complicated by  research suggesting that livestock production systems are planet unfriendly in terms of greenhouse gas production. Much of the analysis around the environmental damage caused by livestock is centered on developed countries.

Vetwork recognises that for many indigenous communities, livestock is more than production - it is culture, identity and livelihood.  Acknowledging and balancing the importance of these issues is a large part of what Vetwork stands for. This is just one example of the complexity of balancing the contradictory issues which abound in addressing environmental concerns.

We are at a point in time where we are increasingly recognising the environmental impact of livestock but have not yet developed a clear strategy of how to counteract it, even if the funds and political will to do so were available. We recognise that in dryland areas such as the Horn of Africa and the Sahel there is renewed interest in building the resilience of communities so that they can withstand increasingly frequent droughts and at the same time improve their livelihoods. A large part of resilience building is the sustainable and productive management of rangelands. Mechanisms for how to do this vary by area and community and needs significant debate and research. For example, this interesting presentation by Allan Savory looks at one controversial practice to manage the important challenges of desertification and carbon sequestration. Whether his suggestions are the correct way to address these issues is contentious, but it highlights the fact that we do not yet have a magic bullet solution for this vital issue.

Forward thinking organisations with the research capacity and hard science available to find solutions are essential. One such key player in the field linking environment and development is IIED with a massive resource of publications and research

Pet ownership

Pet ownership is an area where vets clearly have an interest. The global impact of pet ownership and it’s associated consumption, as well as predation by pets on wildlife, mean that the impact of the planet’s 432 million dogs and 272 million cats [source: WSPA] needs to be considered. This is a resource hungry sector.

Conservation of species

The current sixth mass extinction event our planet is undergoing has relevance and urgency for all of us. Both animate and inanimate species (and obviously their unique gene pools) are disappearing at an alarming rate. Due to the co-dependence (symbiosis) of many species, extinctions lead to co-extinctions. One striking example can be taken from India where the Indo-Gangetic plain (an area parallel and to the south of the Himalayas) was once a forest area teeming with wildlife. This is now decimated for the establishment of agricultural fields, villages and towns. Plenty of legislation has been put in place by the government to restrict human activity in areas of remaining habitat but there appears to be a lack of resources to implement the legislation. The extinction of charismatic mega fauna such as lion, rhino, tiger and elephant in the region is now inevitable.

Sometimes wildlife is specifically compromised by veterinary related activity e.g. poorly regulated pharmaceuticals. The destruction of the vulture population in India and Pakistan due to poisoning from carcasses containing diclofenac is a well documented phenomenon.

Human impact on the environment

Our planet is a finite resource. Unfortunately current dominant political thinking is short term (the weakness of democracy is that it rewards and therefore pursues short term gain not long term sustainability). Human activity has already produced incremental change in the homeostatic mechanisms of the planet and its ecosystems with climate change and mass extinctions being some of the key evidence for this.

The welfare of the planet is an issue of fundamental concern to every living organism and communities need to use their collective intelligence to put in place sustainable and creative solutions to environmental problems. Reflecting on the environmental philosophy spectrum may help one position oneself:

1) Deep ecology is a movement founded by Arne Naess. The living environment as a whole should be respected and regarded as having certain legal rights to live and flourish.

2) Anthropocentric environmentalism is concerned with conservation of the environment only for exploitation by and for human purposes.

3) And of the status quo of a capitalist society that encourages expanding markets, faster consumption and bigger production.