clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

My view: To feed the world, look to veterinarians

Veterinarians are integral to supplying safe, nutritious food to our increasingly crowded planet. We cannot allow a shortage of these health professionals to put the world's food supply at risk.
Veterinarians are integral to supplying safe, nutritious food to our increasingly crowded planet. We cannot allow a shortage of these health professionals to put the world's food supply at risk.
Adobe stock photo

Across one-fourth of the globe, people aren't getting the nutrients they need to stay healthy, according to the newly released Global Hunger Index.

In many countries, the cause isn't a lack of food — it's a lack of safe food. The risk of malnutrition caused by unsafe food is increasing, as human populations grow and continue to urbanize.

This public health problem can be solved — not by doctors but by veterinarians. They're crucial to safeguarding the health of animals that are the foundation of the world's food supply.

Unfortunately, well-trained veterinarians are in short supply worldwide. To improve global food safety, that has to change.

The world's population will increase by 2.6 billion by 2050. Feeding these billions of new mouths will require a 70 percent boost in food production — including 200 million tons of meat.

Increasing levels of urbanization will make it harder to meet the demand for animal protein. Seven in 10 people will live in cities by 2050. Even a minor disruption in the food supply for one densely populated megacity could lead to a humanitarian catastrophe.

Contaminated food can quickly result in malnutrition. As the World Health Organization states, "Unsafe food creates a vicious cycle of diarrhea and malnutrition, threatening the nutritional status of the most vulnerable."

In other words, animal health, expressed through food safety, has a significant impact on human health. Consequently, as guardians of animal health and food quality, veterinarians represent a crucial part of our planet's public health infrastructure.

Vets are essential to the security of the production of foods like eggs, milk and meat. They ensure that animals such as pigs, cattle, sheep, chickens and fish are healthy and treated humanely, whether on farms and ranches, in transit, or in slaughterhouses.

Food-safety vets are also critical to warding off illnesses that can kill livestock and lead to food shortages.

Consider Rinderpest, or cattle plague. As recently as 20 years ago, epidemics of the disease could wipe out 95 percent of an infected herd — and thus lead to mass human starvation.

In 2011, Rinderpest was declared eradicated, thanks largely to the vaccination efforts of public-health veterinarians.

Mad cow disease — bovine spongiform encephalopathy — is another example. Thirty years ago, an epidemic of the deadly brain disorder resulted in the death or destruction of 4.4 million cows in the United Kingdom. Eighty people lost their lives. Today, public-health vets engage in massive surveillance operations to monitor cattle for signs of the disease and rapidly screen specimens for any potential cases.

Unfortunately, food-animal veterinarians are in decline. Just 17 percent of U.S. vets work with food animals at all — and only 2 percent do so exclusively. Seventy percent of our nation's veterinarians specialize in dogs and cats.

Europe is home to over 340 million cattle — and just 243,000 veterinarians. That's roughly 1,400 cattle per veterinarian. And many of those vets focus solely on pets.

As the demand for food rises, this shortage could have dangerous consequences for public health. To secure our future food supply, we must recruit and train aspiring food-animal vets now.

Some institutions have taken action. Earlier this year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture pledged $2.4 million to fund education and training for vets who practice in areas with veterinary medicine shortages. The World Organization for Animal Health has programs in place to aid in the training of veterinarians to ensure safety and security of meat, animals and animal products as they move across international borders.

Veterinary schools are also attacking the problem. The University of Georgia, North Carolina State University and Kansas State University all have incentive programs to encourage veterinary students to specialize in food animals.

At St. George's University, where I teach, veterinary students adhere to the tenets of the One Health One Medicine movement. The movement promotes a holistic view of health that emphasizes the connection between animals, humans and the environment — with a special focus on public health threats through food.

Our veterinary school also emphasizes the valuable role vets play feeding the planet through our dual-degree program in veterinary medicine and public health as well as our outreach programs in animal and human health.

But there's more to be done. Veterinarians are integral to supplying safe, nutritious food to our increasingly crowded planet. We cannot allow a shortage of these health professionals to put the world's food supply at risk.

Dr. Timothy Ogilvie is the dean of St. George's University School of Veterinary Medicine in Grenada.