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Carving out a role in food production

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WHAT will be the role of vets in food production in 10 or 20 years' time, and how big a part will the veterinary profession have played in determining what that role might be?

At a time of renewed interest in food production, and when the relationship between the Government, vets and farmers is changing significantly, these questions need to be addressed.

The renewed interest in food production, including food derived from animals, has been prompted by concerns about food security and the challenges of meeting future demand for food sustainably (VR, January 9, 2010, vol 166, p 32). Meanwhile, as Defra moves forward with its plans to transfer more of the responsibilities and costs of safeguarding animal health to a reluctant industry, including plans to establish a new non-departmental public body to oversee the new arrangements, it seems to be distancing itself from animal health (VR January 30, 2010, vol 166, pp 124, 125). The veterinary profession is caught in the middle of the controversy surrounding the responsibility and cost sharing debate. However, it is becoming increasingly clear that, if it wants to continue to play its full part in food production — and it is in everyone's interest that it does — it needs to take a lead in developing that role itself.

Concerns about the extent of veterinary involvement in food production and, more specifically, about whether enough large animal vets are available to help fulfil the aims of the Animal Health and Welfare Strategy, have been expressed for some time and were highlighted in 2003 in a report from the House of Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee (EFRACom) following an inquiry into the availability of vets and veterinary services (VR, November 1, 2003, vol 153, pp 541, 542-544). The EFRACom's inquiry was prompted partly by an apparent shift in emphasis in the activities of the veterinary profession, as more vets spent more time on companion animals, and, perhaps more fundamentally, by concern that the economics of livestock farming and veterinary practice meant that, in some areas at least, provision of farm animal veterinary services was becoming increasingly unviable. The concerns highlighted by the committee were legitimate, but were largely dismissed by the Government, which said there was 'no evidence of market failure' in the provision of farm animal veterinary services and that it saw little reason to intervene (VR, August 7, 2004, vol 155, pp 157-158).

The pressures on farm veterinary practice have not diminished since 2003 and, more recently, the issues were revisited in 'Unlocking potential: a report on veterinary expertise in food production' produced for Defra's Vets and Veterinary Services Steering Group by Professor Philip Lowe. In his report, Professor Lowe did not find a mismatch between supply and demand for farm animal veterinary services. However, he did express concern that food animal veterinary services were in danger of becoming marginalised and made a number of suggestions aimed at countering and reversing this trend (VR, August 15, 2009, vol 165, p 185).

In a Viewpoint article on pp 211-212 of this issue, Professor Lowe picks up on some of the issues raised in his report, including the continuing shift in the customer base of veterinary practices and the changing relationship between the veterinary profession and government. He also makes the point that veterinary involvement in food production cannot be confined to dealing with animal health problems as they arise on farms; it needs to embrace disease prevention and extend throughout the food chain as vets fulfil a vital role in terms of food safety and safeguarding public health.

Social and economic forces will continue to play their part but, ultimately, much will depend on how the veterinary profession sees itself in the future and the roles it feels it can develop as circumstances change. As Professor Sandy Trees pointed out in his plenary Wooldridge Memorial lecture at last year's BVA Congress, veterinary students graduate with a wide and unique range of skills, with potential to contribute in all sorts of areas (VR, October 24, 2009, vol 165, pp 486-487). Food animal medicine is undoubtedly one of these areas and, as the Government steps back, the profession must take more of a lead in determining how best to apply those skills and how big a part it should play.

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