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January 2021 meeting summary

The Environment & Sustainability Working Party (E&SWP), formed last year to consider the development of a formal policy in this area both for the RCVS and in relation to the profession as a whole, held its first meeting at the beginning of January.

To kickstart this important work, working party members were joined by guest speakers from representative bodies the British Veterinary Association (BVA) and the Society of Practising Veterinary Surgeons, from voluntary group Vet Sustain and from veterinary corporations,  Linnaeus and VetPartners, all of which have already begun to set the pace for sustainability in veterinary practice.

During the meeting, our guest speakers gave presentations which explained how veterinary teams can work in a more sustainable way by making small changes as individuals and within their individual practices. However, they also explained how bigger changes are essential, sector wide to make the necessary contribution to reducing harm to the planet through a vet-specific lens. In order to help drive these changes, direction and policy from the RCVS could be valuable, and the formation of the E&SWP is key to this.

Veterinary professionals have a duty to promote animal welfare, and this extends beyond those immediately in their care. Vets have a unique insight into how our changing planet is having damaging impacts on animal wellbeing and biodiversity and the E&SWP will be looking at how this insight can inspire action through creating sustainability policies, not only internally at the RCVS, but also for vets working on the ground. This first meeting helped to lay the foundation for how RCVS will approach this.

Laura Higham from Vet Sustain, a voluntary group dedicated to supporting vet-led teams to be a leading force for sustainability, spoke about the importance of veterinary involvement in environmental action, with an emphasis on how vets are trusted professionals, particularly in regards to animal health and welfare, and must utilise their platform. Through their various working groups, Vet Sustain are creating toolkits, CPD courses and curriculum guides to tackle sustainability issues relating to the veterinary sector such as nature decline, diseases from animal sources caused by human actions, antimicrobial resistance, public health, animal welfare challenges and climate change. Vet Sustain currently works with over 50 veterinary professionals and their work so far has revealed that there is a huge appetite within the profession to actively engage in the environmental debate.

There was a collective view amongst the group that there are a growing number of vets and vet nurses wanting to know how they can work more sustainability as they are keen to champion sustainability initiatives, but currently do not know where to look. It was suggested that a sustainability plan for vets, which looks at energy use, transport use, anaesthetic gases, waste disposal and procurement, would be a really useful tool for the profession. All practices would benefit if they had access to information on the environment and sustainability, specifically tailored to the work they do, be it in equine, farming or companion animal care.

The discussion drew comparisons with human healthcare, noting that medical instruments and pharmaceuticals make up most of the NHS carbon footprint and this could be similar in the veterinary profession. Considering the coronavirus pandemic, use of disposable PPE may also be an issue to look into, alongside data collection of energy and transport use in veterinary practice overall.

A challenge faced by vets in this space, however, is clinical outcomes, as certain treatments and interventions may be in conflict with sustainability (for example parasiticides and use of anaesthetic gases) and this is something the E&SWP will need to consider when creating policy.

So, what are the next steps for the E&SWP?

This first meeting encouraged a lively discussion and set the scene for the profession in terms of confirming that there was an appetite to act and a discussion on how best action could be achieved. It was useful to see the steps already being taken by the organisations that presented at the meeting.

Consensus amongst working party members and those who attended was that RCVS is well placed as a trusted source to lead the way on setting the standard for sustainable veterinary practice, working with professionals, owners and the public to develop a holistic, meaningful approach.

The E&SWP will ultimately propose an internal environment and sustainability policy for College staff, as well as an external policy for the profession, and will make recommendations concerning potential new environmental and sustainability initiatives.

As part of this work, RCVS Council member and Sustainability Lead, Sue Paterson spoke to members of the profession about the work of the E&SWP in January at the online CPD event ‘Sustainability in Veterinary Practice and Beyond’. The RCVS will continue to work with and learn from the UK Health Alliance on Climate Change, an organisation that seeks to coordinate the work of the UK health professions, with which the RCVS has recently joined forces. It is also currently exploring involvement in the activities and discussions surrounding the COP26 UN Climate Change Conference taking place in Glasgow this November.

The E&SWP will be meeting again on 2 March 2021 and we will be producing further updates on the discussions.