Dr. James D. Ferguson
Professor of Nutrition, University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine
James D. Ferguson studies the relationship between nutrition and manure nutrient content on dairy farms and efficient recycling of nutrients on such farms. He is involved in the development of computer models to aid in farm management of nutrition, nutrient management and reproduction. He also studies the relationships between nutrition, reproduction and production in dairy cattle as well as the relationships between diet and immune function in dairy cattle. He has a BA in natural science from Johns Hopkins University, an MS in biomedical engineering and science from Drexel University and a VMD from the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine.
Demographic changes now underway will have substantial implications for practitioners of veterinary medicine in the future. There will be more people, more of them will live in urban settings, and they will be older and wealthier. Most of the population growth will be in the less developed world. The fertility rate, which has been declining in developed countries, is expected to also decline in less developed countries over the next century but even so, overall population is expected to continue increasing.
Increases in population tend to spur agricultural productivity and innovation — something that will be sorely needed. The trend toward more of the population living in urban areas means people will on average have greater wealth in the future. This will enable citizens in developing countries to consume more animal food products with consumption animal protein projected to increase by 70 percent by 2050. This would require a 50 percent increase in the animal population — something that many say is environmentally unsustainable.
These huge increases in demand for animal-based food beg the question of whether agricultural productivity can continue to increase at the rates needed. Consider eggs. About 1.1 trillion eggs were produced in 2009 from 6.4 billion hens. Each hen produced about 173 eggs that year. Projections for 2050 call for 1.9 trillion eggs needed to satisfy world demand. At present levels of productivity, we would need 10.8 billion hens. If, however productivity per hen were to increase to 276 eggs per bird per year, we could meet demand with 6.8 billion hens.
Productivity gains of this magnitude would go a long way toward lessening the demand on the world’s resources to produce the food we will need in the future. That is because, while world food demand continues to grow, the world’s resources of water and nutrients are limited. If 6.8 chickens can meet egg demand in 2050 rather than 10.8 billion hens, the savings in water and other input resources as well as the amount of manure going into the environment would be substantial. The story is much the same for dairy and meat production: Productivity gains seen in the past will need to continue. Production will need to be intensive no matter the production system
What does this mean for veterinary medicine? To answer that, it’s important to keep in mind that efficiency of production must increase and that production systems must be sustainable. Two aspects of health care delivered in veterinary medicine will be important: 1) a societal obligation to monitoring and control of zoonotic/economically important diseases as well as ensuring food safety and quality; and 2) a client obligation to provide a useful service at a cost relative to the client’s perceived value.
Animal health will increasingly be viewed in terms of “thrift” in the production system and the interaction between animals and the environment. That means having healthy cows in healthy herds that are producing a healthy, nutritious, safe product with minimal environmental footprint. The challenge of the 21st Century will be increasing food production without wrecking the environment. Practitioners of veterinary medicine will play a critical role in accomplishing that. Health care needs to consider multiple dimensions on farms and not just animal health if farm is to be healthy.
We have a long way to go toward accomplishing these goals. At present, more agricultural producers are providing primary health care and fewer animals are seen by a veterinary professional. Skill and training varies considerably from farm to farm. This can lead to an overall weakening of primary surveillance systems that can detect disease and food safety problems.
Developing countries suffer from a lack of access to veterinary care. Yet social pressures across geographical boundaries are leading to increased concerns over the environmental impact of food production, food safety and quality and the welfare of food animals. Veterinary medicine needs to engage these concerns within a health care system. The broader concept of veterinary public health should embrace the development of an animal health care network to deliver services in developing and developed production systems. The health system needs to be sensitive to quality of life for producers and it needs to coordinate animal health with product quality and environmental footprint and animal housing and markets.
The future veterinarian will need an enhanced global awareness of the dynamics of the food system, make it a policy to ensure food safety, and practice disease and pathogen risk surveillance. His or her domain will also include production efficiency and the welfare of animals, farms and the environment. And, he or she will increasingly use a systems approach and be a coordinator of services and the movement of nutrient in production systems and the environment.
In an effort to provide wide-ranging views and perspectives regarding the practice of and issues surrounding agriculture, the Philadelphia Society for Promoting Agriculture (PSPA) seeks speakers representing a variety of perspectives. The statements and opinions they present are strictly their own and do not necessarily represent the views of PSPA.