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The roles of veterinarians in meeting the challenges of health and welfare of livestock and global food security

At the heart of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization’s efforts is achieving food security for all; that is, to make sure people have regular access to enough high-quality food to lead active, healthy lives. With this in mind, the organization’s mandate is to raise levels of nutrition, improve agricultural productivity, better the lives of rural populations, and contribute to the growth of the world economy.

A classical definition of a veterinarian is that of a person that is qualified to practice veterinary medicine, and by this most people think of clinical practices related to the prevention, cure, or alleviation of pain and treatment of injuries in animals, especially domestic animals. But the contemporary roles of veterinarians go far beyond these more visible tasks. As the world becomes intricately interconnected and more complex, so are the various obligations and responsibilities that veterinary professionals must undertake. To give an example, veterinarians at FAO work to reduce hunger and poverty across the globe through the development of animal production and health strategies that improve efficiency in production parameters while upholding environmental and natural resource management principles.

Broadly speaking, veterinarians are involved in more than administering vaccines, cleaning wounds, insert microchips in pets, and inspecting animal food products. Over the years veterinary professionals have played significant and contributory roles in animal and human health and welfare, food quality, food safety, food security, ecology, ethology, epidemiology, physiology, psychology, development of drugs and pharmaceuticals, biomedical research, as educators, trainers, and policymakers, and in wildlife conservation, and the protection of the environment and biodiversity. As challenges have arisen, veterinarians have found ways to adapt given that their knowledge and training makes them multifunctional professionals. This aids societies and its animals to stay healthy and productive. It is therefore not surprising that veterinary medicine is very popular among young people deciding on a career.

It is now widely acknowledged that healthy and productive livestock make important contributions to food production, income generation, job creation, economic growth, and poverty alleviation. As the world population grows and middleclass incomes rise, demand for livestock products increase ―a consumption boom shaped by one decade of rapid economic growth and globalization. But there are certain high impact diseases that do not allow animal husbandry to flourish. Less dramatic diseases impact the performance of farm animals, leading to lower production and associated financial losses due to mortality and morbidity. Additionally, poor animal health also negatively influences animal welfare.

In this regard, the roles of farm-oriented veterinary professionals are to advise farmers and owners of livestock production systems on the most appropriate herd health management practices according to their specific agro-ecological contexts. This does not only include the treatment of animal illnesses and the proper installment of preventive measures, such as biosecurity, de-worming, and vaccination, but also housing, nutrition, cleaning, and disinfection of premises and environmental sanitation. The correct undertaking of these last practices may reduce dependency on the usage of veterinary medications and therefore reduce input and labor costs, which in turn positively influences farm productivity and profit margins.

It would be wrong, however, to limit veterinarians’ work to advisory and hands-on livestock health activities at farm level, as they are involved with other tasks throughout the value chain. For instance, in countries where food safety is monitored and implemented, only healthy farm animals are allowed to be delivered for pre-mortem inspections and further passage to slaughterhouses for meat production thus ensuring safe and wholesome meat supply available for consumption by the public. Also, veterinarians make sure that only healthy farm animals are exported, imported, and distributed, preventing the risk of introducing detrimental, high-impact diseases into regions or countries.

As for global food security, institutional estimates indicate that a total of 925 million people were undernourished in 2010 compared with 1.023 billion in 2009. Most of the decrease was in Asia, with 80 million fewer hungry, but progress was also made in sub-Saharan Africa, where 12 million fewer people went hungry. However, the number of hungry people is higher in 2010 than before the food and economic crises of 2008-2009. Improving food security requires going beyond short-term responses in order to protect and promote people’s livelihoods over the longer term, with agriculture and the livestock subsector playing pivotal roles.

Healthy and productive livestock produces a wide variety of food products for direct and indirect human consumption and processing. These products include blood, eggs, meat and meat products, milk and dairy products, viscera as well as rendering by-products such as brains, ears, feet, skin, testicles, tongues, and udders. The food and income from healthy animals empower farmers of all scales to embrace the advantages, education, opportunities, and strengths they need to produce more food and income to feed an ever-increasing world population. Also, animal food products from healthy and productive livestock improve farmers’ access to both domestic and international markets.

It is for this very reason that the provision of veterinary services by national and regional agencies is a key component of efforts supporting sustainable production of food from animal origins and to the success of farm operations. The lack of proper animal health practices reduces farm efficiencies, decreases food production levels, and impacts potential profits. In fact, studies have demonstrated that there is a direct correlation between the quality of livestock production and the provision of veterinary services. Because food animals support the livelihoods and nourishment of almost a billion people efforts should be directed at upholding food security.

Other contributions to food security can be shown through the multidimensional benefits of eradicating rinderpest from the face of the earth: an achievement of FAO and partners under the Global Rinderpest Eradication Programme. Also, rural veterinarians play preponderant roles in the fight against H5N1 highly pathogenic avian influenza ―a zoonosis affecting livelihoods of millions of people through mortality and morbidity― since it surfaced in Southeast Asia in late 2003. Nowadays, veterinarians are also active in addressing African swine fever, rabies, brucellosis, contagious bovine pleuropneumonia, foot-and-mouth disease, haemorrhagic septicaemia, peste des petits ruminants, Rift Valley fever, and African trypanosomosis, among other diseases.

When zoonotic diseases strike any given geographical location, veterinary professionals are the first source of informed opinion on veterinary issues for governments, veterinary surgeons, the media, civil society organizations and charities, action and consumer groups, and the public. It has long been recognized that analyzing, studying, and recording animal diseases resulting in epidemic events is of tremendous benefit for generations to come. To this end, veterinary scientists, scholars, and professors are the leading providers of veterinary news, research, and information, including clinical and scientific developments to the wider veterinary community and other interested disciplines in science. Closely aligned with information dissemination, the improvement of the welfare of all animals through veterinary science, education, and debate among interested parties has resulted in highlighting and promoting discussions on pertinent welfare issues which are taken forward by institutions and society. Here, too, veterinarians play pivotal roles in these areas.

Veterinary professionals also share responsibilities for bio-security. This is a joint effort that must be shared by all who have obligations for animals and/or animal products, both farm and companion animals. The conventional barriers that nature provides can no longer be relied upon to exclude pandemic dissemination from country to country. In this view, the veterinarian is a sentinel for the early detection of, and early response to, accidental or intentional introduction of exotic diseases. The veterinarian is, in fact, the first line of defense that society counts on against agroterrorism and bioterrorism. In sum, veterinary professionals are key players on bio-defense, and thus for national security and welfare.

To more emphatically highlight the multiple and very important roles that veterinarians have played throughout history and will continue play in many decades to come, 2011 celebrates the 250th anniversary of veterinary education and profession. In fact, throughout the year, national and international veterinary institutions ―along with a number of agencies and intergovernmental organizations― will be promoting the birth of the veterinary profession. They will raise public awareness about the importance of the veterinary profession, while at the same time reminding opinion leaders and policymakers everywhere in the world that veterinarians have been serving humankind for almost three centuries.