As cities grow and urban populations expand, people are becoming increasingly disconnected from their sources of food. Few city dwellers sit down to dinner knowing about the origins, health or well-being of the animals that produced the milk or meat on their tables. Even fewer participate in the food-production process themselves. Most animals involved in human food-production are raised in rural or suburban settings, far from the burgeoning population of city dwellers who consume larger and larger proportions of the world’s food supply.
As incomes rise and populations grow in urban settings, the demand for livestock products is increasing, particularly in the developing world. According to The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, livestock contribute to a full 40 percent of the value of agricultural output, and support the food security of almost a billion people around the globe. If current trends continue, demand for livestock products will continue to grow at rates outpacing population growth. (The State of Food and Agriculture, FAO, 2009 http://www.fao.org/docrep/012/i0680e/i0680e00.htm)
With demand for livestock rising, and the gap between food producers and food consumers widening, veterinarians play an especially critical role in keeping the food supply accessible and affordable while at the same time safeguarding the health of animals that produce food and fiber for humans. Veterinarians provide farmers with guidance on such issues as production efficiency, waste management, reproductive efficiency, and immunization programs. Beyond that, veterinarians care for and control wildlife that have major impacts on food ecosystems and the environment. And, in the context of urban environments where animals and people live in close proximity—at a time when three out of four new, emerging infectious diseases arise from animals—veterinarians play an increasingly important role in diagnosing, monitoring and curbing the spread of harmful disease.
One of the most pressing challenges for the veterinary profession is the need to educate the public about its work in the context of global urbanization. This means helping urbanites not only to recognize how and by what means urban food security will be achieved, but also educating the public about the necessity of enhancing strong urban-rural linkages. The general public in both the developed and developing worlds has little sense of the realities of modern food production. This lack of knowledge can lead to misperceptions and misplaced concerns about both food safety and farm animal health and welfare. Veterinarians today are faced with the essential but difficult task of educating the public while continuing to be efficient and cost effective in producing animal proteins like meat, eggs and milk. Our urbanizing world must also grapple with the essential question of whether and how food production can be integrated into peri-urban and even urban regions in a fashion that preserves the well-being and health of both humans and animals. Ensuring urban food production is sustainable—both economically and environmentally—will require a dedicated effort to understand and adapt to the changing needs and demographics of an urbanizing world, and finding creative solutions for delivering high-quality veterinary science in urban settings.
Meeting these goals is not the sole responsibility of veterinarians, but calls for educating a new breed of professionals—veterinarians, city planners, public health experts and business leaders—who will work together to feed our rapidly urbanizing world. In the future we must integrate knowledge, locally and globally, to ensure an ongoing, safe and adequate food supply. The health of the environment, animals, and human beings is inextricably tied, and experts in these fields must work together to find innovative solutions to food security challenges around the world.