Agriculture is one of the leading drivers of our nation’s economic system. In Pennsylvania, the industry has a massive footprint, contributing nearly $136 billion to the state’s economy and employing one out of every ten residents. Approximately 59,000 farms, the majority of them family-owned, across all counties in the Commonwealth grow and harvest food.
Penn Vet is a valuable partner to the industry, specifically to the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture (PDA). The School’s New Bolton Center offers clinical field service, and herd health research and management for dairy, poultry, and swine animals through the Center for Animal Health and Productivity, and diagnostics for the agricultural community through the Pennsylvania Animal Diagnostic Laboratory System (PADLS).
Given these synergies, it’s natural that Dean Andrew Hoffman and State Veterinarian Dr. Kevin Brightbill have a lot to say about agriculture. In June, the two met at New Bolton Center for a lively discussion of threats to food safety and security, disease prevention and management, and the future of the veterinary profession. This is a condensed version of their conversation.
Which threats most concern you?
Hoffman: As the dean of the state’s only veterinary school, I’m looking from a 50,000-foot view at what threatens the sustainability of our agricultural system. I’m always considering, as an institution, how we can deploy our resources to help farmers optimize food production, profits, and sustainability from the perspective of ecological impact. And importantly, we need to promote — and adhere to — the ethical treatment of animals. Improving industry standards, particularly as it relates to how animals live and work, is part of our veterinary oath and mission. For example, a large consumer population is outspoken against poultry and swine practices. We need to be responsive to these concerns. Otherwise, this will have a significant impact on the perception and success of
agriculture in Pennsylvania.
I also worry about biosecurity. It is a constant threat, locally, regionally, and globally. We’re continually watching for pests or diseases that can harm livestock, poultry, and equine operations.
Brightbill: On the ground, my department closely monitors outbreaks of diseases: the highly contagious virulent Newcastle disease has been a problem for backyard birds in California for more than a year. African swine fever is circulating across the globe — it’s not a matter of if it will reach the U.S., it’s a matter of when. Avian influenza is out there. And chronic wasting disease (CWD)* is an emerging threat that’s devastating for captive and free-ranging deer.
Hoffman: Wildlife is critical. Wildlife can be carriers of disease without exhibiting any clinical signs, requiring innovative forms of surveillance. Throughout history, things like avian influenza have had a wildlife reservoir. Lately, we’ve seen an outbreak of coryza in the poultry industry, and, while suspected, we don’t know if wildlife are a reservoir for this disease.
We always have to safeguard agricultural systems from endemic infectious diseases, like rabies. Agriculture-related infectious bacterial diseases, such as salmonella, are increasingly a problem. Just look at the increasing number of human salmonella cases from backyard chickens. Bugs like E. coli are becoming resistant to antibiotics, making antibiotic usage a big issue in agriculture programs and policies.
What threat does a warming planet hold?
Brightbill: A big one. A lot of diseases are becoming an issue in Pennsylvania because of weather changes and global warming — like the rise of the East Asian or longhorned tick that’s showing up and bringing more cases of tick-borne diseases.
Hoffman: Right, right. And, of course, other hallmarks of climate change can affect animals and agriculture. If we don’t have clean water, if we’re wasting energy, we’re undermining sustainability of farming, eating into profits and livelihoods.
Brightbill: Whatever the threat, we need to look ahead and be proactive.
What does proactive look like with such complicated issues and systems? And where are the synergies between Penn Vet and the PDA?
Brightbill: Being prepared is like a military operation. We need protocols and people with a really good understanding of how disease spreads and animals are moved around. And we need strong public/private partnerships. Land grant, private institutions, and regulatory agencies must work cooperatively to protect the food supply and ensure sustainability. CWD, for one, is progressing, and we are at a critical point where we need consensus and cooperation across different bodies.
Misinformation is frequently a problem. As educators and researchers, Penn Vet has a tremendous role in objectively correcting misinformation, as do PDA and private practitioners. In general, stakeholders — the public, veterinarians, farmers, policymakers, and agencies — need evidence-based information on threats like CWD.
Hoffman: In many areas, Penn Vet and PDA have the same stakeholders. To be proactive, we absolutely must have a shared set of priorities. Kevin brings a very sharp, fresh set of ideas and perspectives to the PDA that closely align with Penn Vet’s.
He’s right that Penn Vet offers a unique, objective perspective — we are not regulators or an advocacy organization but a neutral third party with research and data to support our positions.
The issues are complicated. Identifying problems and collaborating to solve them better positions everyone to directly address rising threats. For example, we need to work together to innovate solutions to the Spotted Lanternfly invasion.
Brightbill: The PADLS** is a great example of where the School and state come together. It shows how a creative public/private partnership can work well to protect agriculture.
Can you give a few other examples of innovative approaches to solving some of these issues?
Hoffman: I’ll start with wildlife. There’s no real surveillance of wildlife health in Pennsylvania. But we’re beginning to understand many vectors — flies, mosquitoes, and ticks — cause problems in wildlife populations. The problems can escalate pretty quickly, and we need a wildlife health system.
The Pennsylvania Game Commission (PGC) has funded a new program at Penn Vet called the Pennsylvania Wildlife Futures Program. Launched in August, the program is developing a surveillance infrastructure to help mitigate infectious diseases, starting with CWD, that could impact any of Pennsylvania’s 480 species of birds and mammals, including agriculture animals and humans.
Brightbill: Whether we’re talking about safeguarding wildlife, livestock health, food supply, or human health, an integral part of the conversation is traceability of animals and food sources. PDA is trying to move forward radio frequency identification technology to track an animal’s movements. With disease, knowing where an animal was, where it is, and where it’s going is vital.
We are also exploring blockchain*** technology for tracking food. Having a barcode or a QR code that links back to a food item’s point of origination not only helps track disease, it also drives value back to farms by giving consumers visibility into who is growing and making food they love.
Hoffman: There’s a clinical care component to consider. We envision a partnership with the PDA to establish a large animal healthcare system that links large animal veterinarians across the state for support and information exchange.
It’s also time to pilot telemedicine and point-of-care diagnostics. Penn Vet is pioneering the latter. A group in the School’s Center for Host-Microbial Interactions has developed on-site DNA or RNA sequencing of material from dead or dying animals. It will enable veterinarians to know right away what they’re dealing with and completely revolutionize
veterinary care for livestock, poultry, equine, and aquaculture.
And I’m excited about a new project the U.S. Department of Agriculture will fund. Our Working Dog Center will train dogs to detect Spotted Lanternfly eggs, the cryptic stage of the organism. The invasive insect is hurting the grape, timber, and other industries. Once the dogs are trained, we can explore with the PDA how we might deploy them throughout the Commonwealth.
Taking another step toward sustainability, Penn Vet is investigating the potential of a scalable, carbon neutral farm that integrates our dairy, swine, and equine facilities with respect to waste and water management, and energy generation. We aim to show sustainable farming can be productive and profitable on our New Bolton Center footprint — we have 160 milking cows, by the way, and thus are the largest dairy operation at any vet school in the country.
Most of Pennsylvania's geography is rural, yet most of the population lives in cities. Why does any of this matter to those of us living in urban areas?
Hoffman: Consumers are among our greatest stakeholders, and a majority of consumers are in Pennsylvania’s cities.**** Urban dwellers buy and eat livestock, poultry, fish, and produce, so agriculture very much matters to them. At the same time, farmers are informed by consumer trends and interests. It’s a symbiotic relationship. We need to link farmers to consumers on a larger, more influential scale.
Brightbill: Farms feed people everywhere, which is all the more reason for traceability. People want to know where their food comes from. If an animal isn’t traceable, the consumer can be wary, regardless of where he or she lives.
Education and training are a key theme in sustainability. How are all of these issues in agriculture shaping veterinary education, training, and practice?
Hoffman: We’ve talked about some overwhelming concerns, but, on a bright note, everywhere I’ve been where there are dedicated, informed veterinarians, there are healthy agriculture communities. The two go hand-in-hand. Veterinarians support farmers — they provide clinical care, education, and moral and intellectual support, making a real difference in the sustainability of a farm.
Our role as a veterinary school is to train all students and develop our faculty to lead in issues we’ve discussed. Penn Vet is stepping into these areas with new degree programs and a new core curriculum.
Brightbill: It all goes back to being proactive. Veterinarians need to constantly retrain and retool. Graduating students must embrace and be able to market consulting skills, whether in biosecurity, nutrition, or appropriate animal husbandry techniques.
Veterinarians are really sentinels. We’re more likely to see a disease pop up in livestock or in people’s pets before it hits humans. And veterinary training and education must support this reality.
Hoffman: This brings me to Penn Vet students. We train students to be watchful sages, to be critical thinkers and lifelong learners who effect change and drive sustainability.
* CWD is a fatal neurodegenerative disease in the family of prion diseases or transmissible spongiform encephalopathies. There’s no known treatment and the disease has been found in captive and free-range deer in Pennsylvania.
** PADLS is a partnership among Penn Vet, PDA, and Penn State University that provides rapid and accurate veterinary diagnostic services to protect animal health, human health, food safety, and the economic well-being of Pennsylvania.
*** More about blockchain: www.farmanddairy.com/news/will-blockchain-play-role-in-agriculture/512126.html and www.agriculture.pa.gov/Documents/PennsylvaniaAgriculture_EconomicImpactFutureTrends.pdf
**** According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Rural Information Hub, only 1.4 million of Pennsylvania’s 12.8 million residents live in rural