Partheeban Navaratnam is Senior Lecturer in Livestock Production at the Royal Agricultural University, Cirencester. He recently wrote an opinion piece in Farmers Weekly calling on us all to break down the ethnic barriers in farming and so I asked him to embellish on the subject on thinkingcountry.
Agriculture and the veterinary profession are very important to me. Being both a farm animal veterinary practitioner, raising my own sheep and teaching livestock production to agricultural students, I spend a lot of my time in wellies. I have had to work extremely hard to achieve what I have achieved but there have been many occasions where I have thought “why do I bother?” In the end it’s both the love of livestock and the good people around me that keeps me going. Both the agricultural industry and veterinary profession can be rewarding and enjoyable and but as a person from an ethnic minority, can also be challenging, stressful and hurtful, when problems are due to your skin colour, sound of your name or cultural background. I want to give a small insight into why these industries are important, why I do what I do and my ideas for starting change.
Overall, agriculture contributed around £24 billion of revenues and around £8.5 billion of Gross Value Added to the UK economy in 2015. The farming labour force has shrunk from 23% of the UK population in 1841 to less than 1% in 2011. With Brexit happening and the fear of an even more diminished workforce, why do we keep thinking about external labour and not concentrate on the UK population? It seems 14% of the UK is ignored as a possible avenue for labour.
Pick up any magazine or leaflet and you commonly see the same type of person farming…a white male. The same is true of veterinary media also. A Sustain publication on agricultural policy wrote “With a widely perceived public image problem and a labour force that is currently dominated by men over 55 years of age, attracting talented and passionate people to the sector could be a challenge.” In the latest Policy Exchange Forum Poll in the Independent 2017, farming is 98.6% white, while in a RCVS Survey of the Veterinary Profession 2014, only 3% identified themselves as from an ethnic minority. Why is farming and the veterinary profession so mono-racial? Commonly young people follow what their parents do especially in industries such as farming and veterinary medicine. This means that for generations, families would maintain certain skills and job roles. This has changed recently with people wanting to have different careers than their parents so either leaving or entering the farming/veterinary community. Another question that needs to be answered is what makes someone want to do a job? Part of the answer lies in exposure to the work and probability of achievement in succeeding in the desired role. This is where the problem, in trying to increase the ethnic minority population in farming and the veterinary field lies.
I became a vet because my uncle is a vet. He was my role model and I used to look at him and think, if he can do it, so can I. He was brown and male, so I could relate to him. I spent all my summer holidays watching him and helping look after the in-patients. Role models are very powerful in encouraging the next generation and others to follow. Without it, any drive to promote a profession/job to anyone is pointless. A role model is a person whose behaviour, example, or success is or can be emulated by others, especially by younger people and so gives hope. We see this in science and technology, where women role models are being encouraged and promoted to make young girls believe that they can take up those roles.
I didn’t have a role model for livestock, but it was in my final exams at vet school, where I had just finished my equine medicine exam and the Professor asked what I was going to do next. I said that I wanted to work with livestock but that nobody would take me seriously. I had spent all my time on farms, had tried to fit all my coursework at university around livestock and read as many books on the subject as I could. My uncertainty was due to my ethnicity. He turned around and said that I could achieve anything I wanted as long as I worked hard. He told me that he had never ridden a horse until he was 19 and was not taken seriously by equine clients at first. Now he was one of the top specialists in equine grass sickness and spends half his time in the UAE attending the Sultan’s race horses. Even to this day I remember his words, but the difference was, that he would never be subject to racial stereotyping and prejudice that I have had to endure. The veterinary profession, for example, has this image of being a forward thinking career. Unfortunately this is not fully true and changes have to be and are being made. Even recently vets were debating whether a client should be reprimanded for calling their animal “n****r”. I feel this is not even up for debate and the answer is obvious.
It is very difficult for people from ethnic minorities to raise issues for fear of backlash and possibly risking their career. There is little support or information for anyone on what to do if you witness racism, how to prevent racism and if one is a victim of racism in the farming and veterinary community. I have worked long enough and experienced plenty of incidences to put my head above the parapet and try and create change. My aim is to try and create an atmosphere that encourages people from ethnic backgrounds to join farming or veterinary practice and try to succeed.
A colleague and I set-up the British Veterinary Ethnicity and Diversity Society to help promote awareness, support and education among veterinary professionals. It is also important for me to do this among the farming community and hence this blog along with many others.
So to begin with, we all need to be aware there is a problem. There are currently no role models, systems in place, education or support. Only once people agree that this problem exists can the next step of providing information to people already engaged in these fields be done. Finally support mechanisms, developing materials, creating role models, and promoting fairness can be used to get people to join these industries. Like I began, I am passionate about farming and veterinary medicine and so if we all work together on these issues, we can make both sectors something the UK can be proud of.