More than £2 million has been awarded to scientists at the University of Lincoln, UK, to lead the most comprehensive study of the British pig industry ever conducted.
As part of the Global Food Security (GFS) programme, which examines the resilience of the UK food system in a global context, the project will bring together all existing data with new scientific studies to accurately build an overview of the entire industry.
The academics leading the project will then produce a systems model, which will be used to predict how major economic and environmental changes will affect the industry, from farmer to retailer, and provide the kind of informed advice which has not previously been available to key decision makers.
PIGSustain: predicting the impacts of intensification and future changes on UK pig industry resilience is part of by the Global Food Security programme; with funding from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) and Scottish Government. The University of Lincoln's pioneering PIGSustain project was announced as one of five studies to receive a share of £9 million in the first round of GFS funding.
Led by Principal Investigator Dr Lisa Collins, Reader in the School of Life Sciences at the University of Lincoln, the project represents a major collaboration between academia and industry. Project partners include the University of Reading, University of Leeds and the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, as well as the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board, Red Tractor, large-scale producers, pig veterinarians and government executive agencies for animal health.
Dr Collins, a specialist in animal health and welfare epidemiology, explained: "The world human population is expected to rise to 9.6 billion by the middle of this century, with global meat consumption predicted to double within the same time frame. In order to be able to feed this growing population, intensification of our agricultural systems will be necessary, but the sustainability of the industry as it currently stands is threatened by numerous external factors, such as competition for depleting natural resources, climate change, disease and environmental concerns.
"At present, we don't have a continuous, objective and quantified understanding of the health and welfare of our national pig herd, we can't predict how it will be impacted by future changes to the industry, and we are unable to tell how resilient the UK pig industry is as a whole – through PIGSustain we will address all of these uncertainties. This is a truly cross-disciplinary project, which pushes the boundaries of current scientific and social scientific knowledge in many directions."
PIGSustain will gather data in order to understand how sustainable intensification and predicted climate changes are expected to impact on the entire pig industry – from the health, disease and welfare of the animals, to consumption patterns and retail prices, which ultimately impact farmers. Gathering information on emerging diseases with the UK pig population is particularly important for the team because, unlike any other animal, it is possible for pigs to translate animal diseases into human forms.
As part of the project's work to track the health and welfare of pigs on farms year-round, Professor Nigel Allinson MBE from the University of Lincoln's School of Computer Science will devise a new monitoring system which can be installed within pig pens. The work by Professor Allinson, Distinguished Professor of Image Engineering, will provide detailed, real-time measures of health and welfare on-farm which are currently lacking.
Representatives of the pig industry have highlighted the urgent need for a system which efficiently and accurately collects this information on a continuous basis to supplement occasional vet consults.
PIGSustain will develop a cutting-edge, automated computer vision system capable of collecting details of pigs' wellbeing, which will provide the team with a clear understanding of how on-farm health and welfare measures match up against those observed at abattoirs. This system will be developed with a view to making it commercially available so that farmers and vets can continuously monitor their pigs.
The four-year PIGSustain project will also collect data from a wide range of sources in order to assess how health and welfare are linked with climate, geography and other factors. For example, the team will collect retail data to understand the socio- and geographical demographics underlying consumer behaviour.
Using the extensive information gathered, the researchers will then develop a model to explain how each industry component is related to, and has the potential to influence, another. Possible future scenarios and predicted trends will then be inputted to identify just how resilient the UK pig industry is, and what factors are critical for its future stability.