Opinion column: To feed the world, look to veterinarians
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.
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 are healthy and treated humanely, whether on farms, 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.
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.
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 for vets who practice in areas with veterinary medicine shortages. The World Organization for Animal Health has programs to aid in the training of veterinarians to ensure safety of 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.
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)