Welcome to the front line – it is a dangerous place to be, but you are not by any means unarmed. Whether you’re already a veterinarian or on track to becoming one, you are in the process of perfecting the skill set you will need to confront the assaults that threaten Life here on Earth. And I use the word “life” intentionally. You are neither just a dog doctor nor just a cow doctor. You are not a human doctor, either. So what are you, then?
Put simply, you are a special breed of scientific professional who swore, or will swear, an oath to protect the well-being of three critical things: animals, people, and the environments they inhabit. Your entire career as a veterinarian will be to protect Life on this planet, plain and simple. Fortunately, you will not be in this battle alone; in fact, for your entire career, you will seek clinical advice from your colleagues, consult new scientific literature, learn of advancements in food systems from producers, and communicate with experts in areas of study you never knew existed. Together, your team will identify the problems, make hypotheses, and find solutions. However, to uphold and protect the health of all, you will need to become an expert in one very important skill – collaboration.
This past November, two seemingly unrelated clubs, the American Association of Bovine Practitioners (AABP) and the Zoo and Wildlife Society (ZAWS) here at Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine did just that, and co-hosted Dr. Alfonso Torres, former director of the USDA’s Plum Island Animal Disease Center, who lectured on the topic of Transboundary Diseases and Wildlife. Our organizations wanted to epitomize the collaboration we seek to inspire between veterinary medicine and outside disciplines, while also presenting an exceptionally timely lecture as our national food production continues to become more interconnected with the larger global arena. In his talk, Dr. Torres commented on several diseases of interest to national and international food security. However, he put special emphasis on the impact of diseases like Foot and Mouth Disease (FMD), African Swine Fever and Classical Swine Fever, as well as Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI), which pose the most significant threats to our nation’s food supply and economy. Aside from tens of billions of dollars in direct losses that could result from reduced animal production from these diseases, substantial indirect costs could be incurred from various control measures, loss of export markets, and plummeting feed prices.
Dr. Torres rounded off his lecture on a lighter note, by addressing how we can prepare for and prevent diseases that negatively impact national and international food security. His primary suggestion: increasing collaboration between veterinary medicine and other disciplines. Such interdisciplinary collaborations are becoming essential for effective conflict resolution – with respect to food security, public health, as well as wildlife and habitat conservation.
For example, the African continent is expected by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) to increase its population by 100%, over 1.2 billion people, by 2050. Concurrently, demand for beef and milk products is expected to grow between 260 and 399%. Sustaining these human and animal populations will require tremendous increases in land and water use in an area considered by the World Bank to be the most vulnerable and least capable to handle the effects of climate change, including droughts, flooding, and subsequent desertification. For the human population, increasing competition for food, water, and land combined with existing social tensions could lead to further humanitarian crises for the continent. For Africa’s endangered large mammal species such as the Hirola, Black and White Rhino, and Grévy’s Zebra, these next 30 years could spell complete disaster, as the last remaining pockets of untouched habitat are converted or destroyed by humans in order to enhance food production. It is imperative that leaders in veterinary medicine, policy, environmental science, food production and other disciplines have shared and frank discussions about the state of our planet and what challenges they foresee. By doing so, we will hopefully translate our shared concerns into meaningful policy changes and action plans that are in the best interest of animals, people, and the environment.
So in short, you as a veterinarian will need to stand guard for these coming years, as they will bring a myriad of challenges. Their forms will be endless – hunger, climate change, antibiotic resistance, overpopulation, pandemic disease, and war are just a few. The fact of the matter is that you will be there, and our world will need you. At the end of the day, however, it will not be individual knowledge that will save this planet. Instead, it will be the collective wisdom of many minds across this Pale Blue Dot, working together as a team towards one common objective – to protect Life. So my challenge for you is a simple one. Wherever you are and whatever your specialty, push yourself to collaborate. It will frustrate you; it will humble you; but, most importantly, it will inspire you. And through that inspiration, I hope you come to appreciate that this world is a remarkable one – and in fact, our only one. It needs our help now more than ever, and we must work together, as one, to protect it.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
J Hunter Reed is a second-year veterinary and Master’s of Public Health student from Minnetrista, Minnesota. In 2016, he graduated from Cornell University College of Agriculture and Life Sciences where he majored in both Animal Science and Biology. Hunter now serves on the board of the Cornell Chapter of AABP and is primarily interested in food security, transboundary and zoonotic disease, as well as livestock sustainability.