Select Committee on Agriculture Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum submitted by The Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons (F 58)

  The prime concern of RCVS in relation to organic farming is with the role of the veterinary surgeon in safeguarding the welfare of livestock. RCVS takes no view on the principle of organic farming, but the health of the animals must not be compromised.

  The Scottish Agricultural College and the British Cattle Veterinary Association have kindly given RCVS sight of their submissions to the Committee. These set out the issues very clearly, and it would serve no purpose to repeat what they have said. The point which we would emphasise is the essential part played by veterinary surgeons in livestock farming, whether organic or conventional.

  Section 19 of the Veterinary Surgeons Act 1966 lays down the general rule that veterinary medicine and surgery may only be practised by qualified veterinary surgeons registered with RCVS. "Veterinary surgery" is defined as including diagnosis and the giving of advice based upon diagnosis. There are a number of exceptions to the general rule, and in particular the owners of farm animals and people engaged in looking after them may give them medical treatment and carry out minor. The veterinary surgeon's functions of diagnosing disease and prescribing treatment are nevertheless vital both to the well-being of the particular animals concerned and for the effective surveillance of diseases and organisms which are economically important (such as mastitis) or may be transmitted to people (such as Salmonella).

  In principle there is no reason why organic livestock management should make less use of veterinary advice than conventional farming. If there is something wrong with an animal, the problem has to be to diagnosed and managed appropriately. Some conditions can be dealt with by an experienced farmer or livestock manager, others need veterinary advice. In practice, however, organic farmers can be inclined to turn to homoeopathic or plant remedies without consulting their veterinary surgeon, and there have been cases where the veterinary surgeon has been brought in too late to save the animal which has received inappropriate treatment and animal welfare has been severely compromised.

  There is a commonly held misconception amongst some organic farmers that veterinary surgeons are not interested or that there is no need for veterinary involvement because traditional medicines are not required. In other words the vets are sometimes seen by organic farmers as purveyors of conventional medicines rather than custodians of animal health. The consequences of this approach have frequently been catastrophic for animal welfare, with veterinary assistance being sought much too late. Veterinary advice on disease control is probably even more important with organic farming than with more traditional systems where there is sometimes over-reliance on medication. A number of examples have been brought to our attention with cattle, sheep and pigs where veterinary advice has not been sought, animals have not received suitable medication and consequently been subjected to unnecessary suffering and even death.

  The current standards for organic livestock as approved by UKROFS recommend in para. 5.4(a) that phytotherapeutic or homoeopathic products should be used in preference to allopathic medicines or antibiotics provided that their therapeutic effect is effective for the species of animal, and for the condition for which the treatment is intended. This creates a problem because there is a total absence of information on the efficacy of phytotherapeutic or homoeopathic medicines for treating any disease or condition in food producing animals. There is therefore a need for appropriate funding to research the efficacy of alternative medicine. The Research Councils are unwilling to support whole animal clinical research and as the market is so small it is unlikely the manufacturers will be willing to fund the appropriate work. Perhaps MAFF, as a part of its overall support for organic farming, should consider funding research into alternative or complementary medicine that could be safely used in organic food production.

  In sum, organic farming should not imply amateurish or unscientific livestock management: on the contrary, expert professional advice is all the more necessary if the health and welfare of the animals is to be ensured with minimal recourse to conventional medicines.

28 September 2000

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