Philip Lowe, from the Centre for Rural Economy at the University of Newcastle, argues that a shift in
practice from treating animals used for food on farms to looking after pets in
urban communities, is largely to blame.
The proportion of time vets in private practice spent
treating animals used for food halved between 1998 and 2006, he writes. Most
vets run their own businesses, and pet owners have proved a more sustainable
and lucrative source of income than farmers.
Professor Lowe sympathises with the need to make money, but
he laments this drift towards the profession turning into "another private
sector service industry."
This fails to make use of vets' considerable and wide
ranging expertise, he says, adding: "I would argue that it also diminishes the
public standing of the whole profession. I certainly couldn't imagine the
medical establishment in this country accepting a role that marginalised public
health, even if the NHS did not exist."
"More seriously for all of us, I believe that not involving
vets in this important area also puts food safety in the UK at risk," he
"At the same time we live in an age when there is real and
widespread public concern about welfare standards for farm animals, threats
from animal diseases old and new [such as blue tongue, bird flu and swine flu],
and food safety."
In the past the veterinary arm of government traditionally
provided leadership for the profession, writes Professor Lowe, that was
embodied by the Chief Veterinary Officer and was underpinned by the proportion
of vets' income derived from public funding.
But this is no longer the case, he writes, and is further
undermined by the percentage of vets employed by government having shrunk from
11% to 4% over the past 40 years.
The profession needs to rethink its role and the direction
in which it is travelling, he urges.
And there needs to be more specialist support and training
for student vets and novice practitioners so that they are not put off from
farm practice before they have had a chance to develop their skills and
confidence in this area, he says.
But he cautions against returning to the stereotype
popularised by the fictional James Herriot vet, who was depicted as a mainstay
of the rural community.
"The farm vet's position and respect for their expertise
needs to be restored, but not in the old Herriot mould. He or she has to take
on the much greater challenge of risk and welfare regulation and management
across the whole food system," says Professor Lowe.