I've commented before on the shortage of agricultural animal veterinarians, and did so in a way that blurred the problems of rural mixed practice and the need for well-educated food supply veterinarians, which are not the same thing. No doubt I'll have more comments on those topics, in which I'll try to be clearer, ... but my purpose here is different.
Part and parcel of the question of what elements do we emphasize in educating food supply veterinarians is the question, what will the animal food supply system will look like in 10 years? 20 years?
I must admit that I do not have a fully satisfactory answer to the question, but I do think that the veterinary profession must be in the lead in providing the answer and the solutions to the issues raised. If this is to be, those of us in academic veterinary medicine will not only need to educate students well in current practices, but we also will need to give them a glimpse of possible futures while also imparting the skills and the confidence they need to help shape that future.
Because of the complexity of this issue, and my lack of a fully formed answer, I would be very interested in receiving comments from you as to what you think.
In the meantime, to get the ball rolling, I'll say this: I believe that whatever evolution occurs in agricultural animal food production in the next decade or two, one consistent element will be increased attention to animal welfare as regards housing, feeding, transportation, and humane slaughter systems that minimize stress and better allow animals to express more of their normal behaviors.
Why do I think that?
Because, in one way or another, society will eventually demand it.
So, why do I think society will demand it? How about this? Or this? Or this? Or this? This (may require login after free registration)? ... and this? These events and opinions reflect a growing societal awareness of, and concern for, the animal welfare and environmental aspects of farming (including French fries). Don't get me wrong, I enjoy a good steak as much as the next omnivore, and I believe most people do not want to eschew meat in their diet. However, I think Wayne Pacelle is accurate when he says (as he did in his remarks at a 2007 USDA/CREES symposium on future trends in animal agriculture):
It is consumers who will decide what future farms will look like, whether through choices at the ballot box, the supermarket, the restaurant, and elsewhere. Bottom line: Agriculture will have to meet societal expectations of how animals ought to be treated...
Importantly, the industry is getting this message. In addition to some of the above links, for example, a vice president from Smithfield Foods, Inc. laid out the corporate case in largely those same terms in his presentation at the same symposium. In fact, the future here has already been presaged by what is happening in the European Union. So, I think change is inevitable. I hope (but have been around long enough to not totally expect) that change will be driven by fact and science, and involve the most knowledgeable professionals. This brings me back to the question posed in the title of this post. UPDATE: See also this article for additional perspective.
If you were expecting an answer and not more questions, sorry... But here are some things to consider. Who will conduct the scientific studies needed to underpin best practices in sustaining animal agriculture with a greater emphasis on animal welfare (with an eye on environment to boot)? Who will articulate the standards and policies? Who will advise producers as to how to comply with standards and adopt best practices? Who will be responsible for certifying compliance?
The veterinary profession is perfectly positioned to work with producers and end-point suppliers to meet both producer needs and societal expectations to shape the future of animal production and, in parallel, define what Ag Animal practice will look like. In the end it boils down to a pretty simple choice; will we help shape the future or will we settle for reacting to the future others shape for us?