The Damaging Conflict Between Animal Scientists and Vets

Professor Paul Iji

Paul Iji

Paul Iji, Professor and Dean at College of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, Fiji National University

I read a sort of review in the recent edition of the newsletter of the Nigerian Institute of Animal Science (NIAS) of which I am a member. It narrates the long-standing feud between animal scientists and veterinary doctors in Nigeria. Let me state upfront that similar conflicts exist in some other African countries, and the animal industries bear the brunt. I think the conflict has both historic and contemporary origins. Still it has held back the development of the animal industries even prior to Nigeria’s independence. During the colonial era, due to the limited skills available in the colonies in the early days, colonial administrators tended to dabble into missionary and health work, regardless of their backgrounds. Often, the administrators had some health experience, which enabled them to treat themselves and their colleagues, and offered the same service, on a limited scale to the community, to win over the colonies. It was therefore not uncommon for such administrators to dabble into animal care, given the affinity of the Europeans to pets. As animal agriculture developed, and for obvious reasons, the role of animal care was relinquished to people with some animal health background. Although the animal industry has developed to such an extent that we now clearly know the role of each professional, it has been quite difficult to get the vets to realise their own role in animal production. They only need to look at their degree curriculum to remind themselves of what they were taught. In Nigeria’s livestock sector, we have put the cart before the horse for far too long.

For anyone that is familiar with animal industries, a farm develops from sourcing good stock. Such stock can be bought in or developed by the farmer, and the most competent people to do these are the animal geneticists/breeders. Animal breeding is perhaps one of the most specialised branch of animal science, and today, we owe the massive development of all farm animals to breeders. If we take the rapid improvement in the growth and efficiency of poultry, for example, breeding accounts for more than 70 percent of the effort, and once the birds get on to a farm, the remaining faction is shared between housing, nutrition, health and general management. The same would apply to larger animals, like beef and dairy production, although it is difficult to set exact proportions of the contribution of each of the professional areas of animal and health sciences. Anyone that thinks otherwise is either ignorant or mischievous. There is no need to antagonise one another – we know the role of each professional. Good genetics alone, as important as it is, would be useless if not matched by a good environment, the key components of which are housing, nutrition and health care.

It is unfortunate that vets have refused to acknowledge their role as a support sector to the animal industry. The lack of this realization has led Nigeria into a conundrum. How have we been unable to develop our cattle, sheep, pig and goat breeds after nearly 100 years of animal research in Nigeria? Only Shika Brown, a layer strain, has been developed more by serendipity than focussed effort. Nigeria has not progressed much in commercial animal production because we did not develop our breeds, unlike the situation in say South Africa, which has developed world-class breeds of cattle, sheep and goats. The poultry industry is in the hands of the likes of Aviagen, ISA and Cobb-Vantress, so much so that most countries do not try to re-invent the wheel. In Nigeria, we got stuck into a situation where veterinary doctors took turns to direct research at the National Animal Production Research Institute (NAPRI) for most of the time that the institute has existed. As professionals, we are trained to do different things. A vet doctor is not an animal breeder, and most animal scientists would not dabble into animal breeding, at least not on the national scale. At NAPRI, there was actually little or no effort into animal breeding. One can only do what he or she knows. The vets at NAPRI focused on managing animal health care and artificial insemination, which they wrongly think is a breeding process. Worst still, the composition of personnel over the years has been lopsided; with as many vets as, if not more than, the animal scientists. This is completely wrong. A normal livestock farms runs with more than 80 % animal scientists. If one has need for more vets on a farm, then the overall management of the farm is faulty. Animals that are of high genetic stock and are well housed and fed would require less health care.

I fully recognise the need for vets to be employed. The production of veterinary doctors has been poorly managed in Nigeria. More vets are produced than are required. South Africa has only 2 universities where vets can be trained; Kenya, Uganda and Zimbabwe all have about one university each. The veterinary science programme is an expensive programme and simply put, a country does not need as many veterinary doctors as animal scientists. It is just like saying that a country needs more teachers than doctors – teachers are there to educate for good health, failing which doctors come into the picture. This is about the same thing on the livestock farm.

I rejoice with the confirmation of the first animal scientist, Mr John Taiwo, to become Director of the Department of Animal Husbandry Service. I feel ashamed that Nigeria should even be celebrating such an appointment now, close to 100 years of animal research in the country and nearly 60 years post-independence.

I will like to end this letter by making two recommendations:

1. No new veterinary school should be created in Nigeria. What we need are animal scientists and not more vets. It is exactly what I am doing in my present role as Dean of a College that oversees agricultural, forestry, veterinary and fisheries training. The first thing that I looked at was the ratio of vets and animal scientists that will come off the system. I noticed that the animal science degree was an exit programme from a combined vet/animal science degree. Left unchecked, there would be more vets than animal scientists and I do know what we require on a practical farm. The situation in Nigeria created a glut of vets, who luckily but unfortunately being channelled into positions that they cannot manage. The veterinary board in Nigeria should look into closing some poorly developed veterinary schools. Veterinary medicine should not be seen as an alternative field of study to human medicine and certainly not a competitor but a complement to animal science.

2. The leadership of the National Institute of Animal Science (NIAS) should as a matter of urgency reach out to the leadership of the veterinary association, for the two sets of professionals to come together and work for the betterment of the animal industry. This intervention is not going to be easy to pull off, but it is should be started and NIAS should not give up, even if it takes 5 years. The animal industry needs the collaboration of all related professionals to move the country forward. The roles of these professionals are clearly defined. There is no master-servant relationship in this; the livestock sector needs animal scientists in the most and a good sprinkling of vets, alongside the other professionals like agric engineers, soil scientists, crop scientists and agric economists/extension officers.

The battle between animal scientists and vets in Nigeria (and sadly in some other African countries) will not produce any winners without the destruction of the national livestock sector. Nigerian animal scientists and vets should sheath their swords and revive the animal industry. It is shameful to still have animals that produce one litre of milk per day or grow at less than 500 grammes per day. We are importing a lot of meat of questionable quality and health status, with turkey and chicken meat sometimes preserved with very toxic chemicals. We cannot allow our people to keep dying. The crop scientists are doing their best, as is evident from the revival of rice production. We can do the same for the animal sector. Bury the pride and the hatchet and work.

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