Organic farming: where are the vets?

An unexpected aspect of the growth in popularity of organic farming has revealed a lack of vets trained to treat organically farmed animals. This shortage was highlighted recently in the US, and has also been recognised in the UK. With growing public concern about intensively farmed animals, and a rise in demand for organically grown meat, similar challenges could soon face Australia’s organic farmers should their animals require veterinary treatment.

The results of a survey conducted in the US recently, that looked at the issue of veterinary care for organic producers, revealed herd health presented few challenges for most farmers, since they were generally able to handle most health problems themselves without consulting a vet.

The study was led by Jenny O’Neill, an Iowa State University graduate student in sustainable agriculture, and participants in the survey involved members of the Iowa Veterinary Medical Association who work with food animals, and organic livestock producers certified by the US Department of Agriculture.The findings are consistent with a 2003 UK study prepared for the Soil Association by independent researcher Charlie Pye-Smith. While this report confirmed there was a ‘shortage of vets who are sympathetic towards and knowledgeable about organic farming, and understand the different approach required,’ it also called for more clarity about the appropriate use of conventional veterinary treatments in organic farming, and stated that vets should be more involved in overseeing livestock: ‘Organic livestock training for vets should be a requirement for any vet who wants to work on organic farms.’

In recognising organic systems delivered better animal welfare than non-organic the report also acknowledged: ‘standards were not perfect, and animal welfare problems were also associated with organic farms.’

O’Neill said results of the US survey suggested that information relevant to organic standards and options appeared to be failing to reach veterinary professionals, given the high level of misunderstanding participants revealed about the definition, rules and standards of organic production.

Although some US veterinary schools are now offering courses on alternative therapies, they tend to focus on Chinese and herbal treatments according to Jim McKean, veterinary professor at ISU. He said organic practices can carry their own health risks, since a closer proximity to wildlife risked contracting certain diseases, such as trichinosis or toxoplasmosis – risks that are eliminated when animals are confined. McKean also feared some organic farmers risked causing unnecessary suffering for their animals by failing to seek medical treatment promptly because doing so would jeopardise their organic certification.

“One of my issues with the organic livestock movement is that because of the increased value of the organic animal versus those that have been treated for diseases, is they put off treatment of diseases for an extended period of time,” he said.

Despite being a growth industry, the number of organic livestock farms in the US was still quite low which made it difficult for vets to specialise and still earn a living, according to Gatz Riddell, a vet and executive vice president of the American Association of Bovine Practitioners. He also pointed out the difficulties of including more subjects into “already overflowing” veterinary curricula.

“Unless you live in certain parts of the country, it’s very much a niche market. Only a minority of members have the mindset to work with organic producers because the vast majority is conventional production. It’s asking a lot of vets to actually know two ways of treating something,” he said.

However Pennsylvania-based vet Hubert Karreman, who principally treats organic dairy cows, found veterinary textbooks that pre-dated the use of antibiotics contained valuable information on biologic and botanical remedies, and provided many of the necessary answers, although he also confirmed there was less need for vets on organic farms.

“Calves that are on nursed cows, running with their mothers, are the picture of health compared to calves being fed bottles of milk replacer, and on an accelerated weaning process,” he said.

ANNE LAYTON-BENNETT