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Thin green line stretched to breaking point

New Zealand Veterinary Association

9 May 2008

Thin green line stretched to breaking point

There is a crisis looming across rural New Zealand because of veterinary manpower and economic issues, which will inevitably threaten the viability of New Zealand's agricultural exports, said Dr John Maclachlan, the President of the New Zealand Veterinary Association, at an industry briefing yesterday.

"The thin green line which is the rural veterinary workforce is stretched and, in some areas, already broken," he said.

"All New Zealanders need to understand this means fewer experts overseeing the important areas of exotic disease surveillance, food safety and animal welfare."

The briefing, which included a BERL report on the viability and potential impact of rural veterinarians, highlighted some alarming statistics. These were supported by a first-hand account from an East Coast veterinarian who graphically described what has happened in a large region where there is now no veterinary presence from Opotiki to Gisborne - a distance of some 30km.

"Young veterinarians are leaving the rural workforce and not returning. Many go overseas attracted by the better remuneration rates and the need to pay off large student loans or simply for their OE.

"The thin green line that is the rural veterinary presence in New Zealand provides highly skilled eyes and ears constantly on the lookout for exotic disease outbreaks. Yet this enormous public good is provided at no cost to the citizens of New Zealand," said Dr Maclachlan.

He said the public needs to be made aware that this force is currently an unpaid 'public service' which potentially saves New Zealand millions of dollars. Reserve Bank financial modelling suggests that if an outbreak of foot and mouth occurred in New Zealand the cost would be $10 billion of GDP in the first 2 years.

"Animal welfare is also becoming a growing concern. Consumers, certainly internationally and increasingly nationally, are taking a closer interest in welfare and environmental matters and are demanding evidence that animals are cared for in a manner that they, not us, deem to be acceptable. Veterinarians play an important role in maintaining welfare standards" Dr Maclachlan said.

Complicating the issue is the recent unbundling of prescribing and dispensing of prescription animal remedies. Historically rural practices have relied - in many cases heavily - on the sale of animal remedies to subsidise fees for professional services.

This originated in the farmer-run vet club system, which was used very successfully after the Second World War to establish rural veterinary practices in New Zealand - with farmers preferring to pay low fees subsidised by higher margins for drugs. The unbundling allows for pharmaceutically unqualified people to dispense prescription veterinary medicines - many medicines the same as those dispensed to humans and only available through registered pharmacists.

The New Zealand Veterinary Association sees this as opening a Pandora's box of potential problems such as drug residues in animal based products. The cost of endosulfan residues found in beef exported from New Zealand to Korea recently was estimated to be about $30 million, emphasising the seriousness of possible consequences.

Dr Maclachlan pointed out to the briefing that a number of other countries, namely the UK, Canada, the US and Australia, share the same issues around the shortage of trained veterinarians as New Zealand is experiencing.

"The difference is that none of these countries is dependent on primary production for their export income to the extent that New Zealand is. However, they have all developed policies and actions to increase the numbers of veterinarians and address the profitability of rural veterinary practice.

"Canada has a trained and paid voluntary reserve, and the US is spending an additional $US1.6 billion over the next ten years training additional veterinarians, particularly in food safety and biosecurity areas.

"New Zealand needs to learn from these experiences and, at the same time, develop solutions which match our unique problems. We have already approached Government, and will be working to keep the matter on the agenda," Dr Maclachlan said.

"This is not patch protection or self promotion for the veterinary profession, but if the viability of rural veterinary practice is compromised any further we run the very real risk of severely compromising our animal production industry and the 'farm gate' value of $11 billion dollars that it currently contributes annually to New Zealand's GDP."

"This is a serious threat to our export industries which, if not dealt with by a range of stakeholders in the near future, presents some very serious threats to our future export earnings and wellbeing as a nation."

Dr Maclachlan urged all parties to begin to work together in the search for solutions.


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