Worldwide, but certainly in Europe, there is more attention to nature-inclusive farming. From a European perspective, nature-inclusive farming is in line with the policy goals in the Green Deal. Dutch policymakers see this method of agriculture as one of the solutions for, among other things, the nitrogen problem. Moreover, nature-inclusive farming is in line with the trend of consumers paying more attention to animal welfare. Senior researcher Ad Koets from WBVR points out that the current agricultural system has existed for a long time. “The way we farm now has a history of 50, 60 years. Farmers and their animals have grown up in this system and adapted to it.” Koets believes that the system cannot be changed overnight. “Setting up a new agricultural or animal husbandry system takes time. Today’s cow may not be suitable for tomorrow’s agricultural system.”
The WBVR researcher’s greatest concern is the consequences for animal welfare and health in a nature-inclusive agricultural system. “What many do not realize is that nature-inclusive means that it is also pathogen-inclusive.” If an agricultural system must be more part of the natural environment, the use of substances such as fertilizers and medicines will be reduced. Koets expects that diseases that currently do not or hardly occur in modern livestock farming will return in nature-inclusive agriculture. He is thinking, among other things, of bovine tuberculosis (TB), a disease that no longer occurs in Western dairy farming, but is present among wild animals. “If contact between wild and domestic animals becomes easier again, we will not keep a disease like TB at bay,” the researcher warns.
Many of the diseases that can potentially be reintroduced into farmed animals via wild animals are zoonotic, Koets emphasizes. “This means that not only our farmed animals, but also us humans are at risk. It took 70 years before we eradicated bovine TB in the Netherlands and now it seems that we are going to open the door to that and other diseases by focusing on nature-inclusive farming.” The researcher points out that diseases have been eradicated precisely because there has been a lot of attention to animal health in the Netherlands. “But many of the pathogens are still in Europe. Little is needed for a reintroduction of, for example, bovine TB in our country.”
Koets is certainly not against a change to the current farming system in the Netherlands, on the contrary. “The fact that we are now free of certain diseases does not mean that the situation is stable. In many cases we are actually very vulnerable. Our husbandry system is not robust. To change this, we need to make animals more resilient. Make more use of their own immune system by giving young animals the opportunity to properly train and build up their immune system in a suitable form of husbandry. However, this approach also means that we have to look differently at disease in young animals in a livestock herd. Certain symptoms that we now consider undesirable are necessary for the training and building of a robust immune system.” Ultimately, this process will ensure a more robust livestock population, says Koets. “But do we as a society/consumer, animal keeper and veterinarian accept that development as a consequence of a changing animal husbandry system?”
According to Koets, it is still too early to fully assess the consequences of a switch to nature-inclusive agriculture. In any case, in the context of animal health and welfare, he advocates paying a lot of attention to monitoring and intensifying the programs for this purpose, preferably internationally and in the wild population. “Through monitoring we can at least keep track of which pathogens are present in the natural environment, so that we can take appropriate measures as early as possible,” he concludes.