Our Planet, Our Health: A unique perspective on sustainable farming

The WHO estimates that 13 million deaths around the world each year are due to avoidable environmental causes. As a result, there is growing urgency to create sustainable, well-being societies that are focused on creating equitable health that is maintainable for future generations without breaking our ecological limits. One area where this challenge presents itself is on farms, specifically within the meat and dairy industry. At AIGHD, research fellow Else Vogel researches the entanglement of human and non-human health on farms in the Netherlands, a country where people and farms live close together, in light of the wider impact farming has on health globally. This year for World Health Day, we honor the theme “Our Planet, Our Health” by highlighting Else’s research on the environment, farming, health, and our planet.

Else is currently researching how veterinarians work with commercial pig and dairy farmers. The aim of her qualitative research is to understand the reasons behind the specific way farmers and veterinarians care for animals on the farm. In a world that is focused on improving sustainable farming, Else explores whether and how intensive farming can improve human health, animal health, and the livelihood of the farmers involved. Considering the symbiotic relationship between our planet’s health, human health, and animal health, Else believes that some of the most concerning challenges we must consider while tackling this issue are anti-microbial resistance, zoonotic epidemics, and greenhouse gas emissions from farms. While governments and organizations around the world are committed to improving sustainable farming practices, it remains a challenge to find approaches that benefit the different stakeholders involved: humans, animals and their environments.

When considering the complex relationship between human health, animal health, food security, and building sustainable farming practices, Else cautions us to not simply think about all kinds of values as various forms of “one health” that all go together smoothly. Rather, Else is interested in where there are tensions between commitments to economic prosperity, biodiversity, sustainability, public health, and animal welfare. For the greater interconnected picture, we must address these tensions and develop practical ways of combining these values. As a social scientists, Else has the privilege of breaking down barriers and interviewing farmers and veterinarians, who are often concerned that with the public discussions around animal welfare and environmental challenges their image in society is changing towards a more negative one. Else’s main goal is not evaluating farmers and veterinarians but instead learning from their daily practices and challenges. Only then are we able to address the many factors at stake in food production and build more sustainable farming practices.

Since the expansion of increased intensification of farming after World War II, many people are now distanced from farming practices and the rationale behind these practices. It can be easy to cast judgment on the pig and dairy farming industries when sustainability and planetary and human health is at the forefront of many countries’ sustainable development goals. At the beginning of her research, however, Else was struck by how everything done on a farm has a rationale and reason. This makes it increasingly difficult to change certain practices when factoring in sustainability. Else therefore argues that it is not a question about making people aware of concerns, but rather about finding the ways in which different concerns can come together for a beneficial solution.

As we commit to creating sustainable well-being societies focused on the synergy between human health, ecological health, and animal health, it is necessary to understand the complex differences between each one. Researchers like Else are crucial for the path towards sustainability as their commitment to understanding the roles of different stakeholders without bias helps to acknowledge the individual needs necessary to create well-being societies that are ultimately better for our health and our planet.