Challenges facing UK pig industry investigated in new £2 million study

The PIGSustain project, led by the University of Lincoln, is funded by a £2 million grant to help increase the resilience of UK food systems. It is one of five projects being funded under the scheme.

Around 37% of all meat consumed globally is pork, making it the largest of the meat industries. The EU contributes to nearly a fifth of global production. As the human population grows around the world, the associated increase in meat consumption requires intensification of agricultural systems in order to meet demand - by 2050, the per capita consumption of pork is expected to double. Despite this, we don't currently have a good understanding of the health and welfare of the UK's national pig herd, which makes it difficult to predict what impact future changes will have on the herd and the UK pig industry as a whole.

There are numerous external factors that threaten the sustainability of the industry, such as climate change, disease, the depletion of natural resources and general changes in consumer trends.

School research will focus on how pig welfare is affected by UK weather patterns and explore the potential impact of climate change on the industry. As climate is a key determinate of the distribution of some food-and vector-borne diseases, climate change has the potential to impact the spread and emergence of epidemic diseases that could affect livestock.

Researchers will produce models to determine how climate affects both farmers and consumer patterns. The models will also aim to discover the impacts pig farming has on the immediate environment and identify improvements to ensure sustainability. Automated technology will be used to collect detailed real-time information from pigs on the farms, which should produce more reliable data, as having an observer present can alter pigs' behaviour. In the long-term this technique could help farmers monitor their pigs 24/7, a service that vet groups have previously called for to help them improve herd health.

Dr Shakoor Hajat, co-investigator on PIGSustain and Associate Professor in Epidemiology and Medical Statistics at the School said: "Pork represents a huge share of meat consumption in the UK and worldwide, but the industry faces many challenges. Providing quantitative assessments of how pig health and welfare are likely to be impacted by future changes to the industry, including through complex climate change processes, will enable us to determine how resilient the UK pig industry currently is. 

"Characterising associations between weather patterns and pig health will also complement the existing evidence from similar studies conducted on human health."

The researchers hope the work will support those working in the pig industry, help farmers and vets to understand changes in pig health over time, and identify where improvements to animal welfare need to be made. Maintaining sustainable practice in the pig industry also means consumers can continue to benefit from UK-sourced food at affordable prices.

Commenting on the five new research initiatives, Science Minister Jo Johnson said: "From disease protection to improving management of global food shocks, these research projects will help tackle the serious threat of food shortages. Supporting these exciting and innovative solutions will help the UK food industry be better prepared for external factors and help provide food security to millions around the world."

Led by Dr Lisa Collins from the University of Lincoln's School of Life Sciences, PIGSustain also involves researchers from the University of Reading and the University of Leeds, and is part of a research programme that was driven forward by the UK's 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.

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