Opinion | Wanted: More livestock veterinarians in rural communities
By Cindy Hyde-Smith
Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith (R-Miss.) is the former Mississippi commissioner of agriculture and commerce and serves on the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry and the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on agriculture, rural development, Food and Drug Administration, and related agencies.
The United States is blessed with one of the safest, most abundant and most affordable food supplies in the world, but it’s not a blessing invulnerable to threats. The ongoing pandemic, extreme weather events around the world and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, for instance, have contributed to supply chain disruptions and rapidly rising food costs.
And here’s another serious challenge that confronts the U.S. livestock and poultry industries: a severe shortage of food-animal veterinarians in rural areas.
This shortage threatens public health, food safety, food security and the economic growth of communities that depend on agriculture, and we should use the opportunity of the upcoming debate on the 2023 Farm Bill to tackle the problem before it worsens.
Veterinarians are a critical link in the food supply chain. They are on the front lines of treating and preventing the spread of animal diseases, keeping our food safe and helping ensure that diseases don’t jump from animals to humans.
Private-sector veterinarians work with individual farmers to protect the health of the farmers’ livestock, enabling them to maintain strong businesses. Public-sector veterinarians work across a number of government agencies where they inspect meat and poultry products, monitor for foreign animal diseases and enforce animal welfare laws.
A new report commissioned by the Farm Journal Foundation, however, found that only 3 to 4 percent of new veterinary graduates focus on food animal medicine, a significant decline from 40 years ago when about 40 percent pursued this area of study. As a result, more than 500 U.S. counties face a shortage of food animal vets. In my home state of Mississippi, as in many other states, we now have counties without a single large animal veterinarian.
Veterinary students today see higher earning potential in working with companion animals, such as dogs, cats and other pets. Faced with paying off high levels of student debt and equipping a veterinary business, they opt for these better income prospects in urban and suburban areas over the lower incomes and more demanding workloads that come with rural veterinary work.
To help protect our food supply, we must do more to support veterinarians, including strengthening incentives for work in rural areas. As part of its work on the Farm Bill, Congress should expand the Veterinary Medicine Loan Repayment Program, the flagship federal grant program to help pay off the educational loans of veterinarians who agree to serve in rural shortage areas. Today the VMLRP helps fill positions in only a fraction of the nation’s underserved areas. Its impact is diminished because awards are subject to a federal withholding tax, meaning that 37 percent of the dollars appropriated to this program go right back to the U.S. Treasury instead of toward relieving the student debt of rural vets.
The bipartisan Veterinary Medicine Loan Repayment Program Enhancement Act (S. 2215), which I co-sponsored, would eliminate taxes on programs that encourage vets to practice in rural and underserved areas, just as medical doctors are exempt from withholding on federal grants linked to their working in rural health-care shortage regions.
Congress should also adequately fund and administer programs that offer business support to veterinary practices in rural communities. We should look at how to improve the Veterinary Services Grant Program, which supports education, training and practice enhancements such as equipment purchases for veterinarians in shortage areas.
Finally, Congress needs to work with veterinary schools to enroll more students from rural backgrounds who have an interest in serving their own communities. Supporting training opportunities for rural and underserved students would help increase student retention and mirror successful medical school programs that benefit rural applicants.
As we’ve seen in the past year, every link in our food supply chain is important, and challenges that affect one part of the system can create negative consequences for everyone — farmers, producers, processors and consumers. We need to act now to maintain safe, affordable food supplies for all Americans by ensuring a healthy pipeline of rural food animal vets.