CIEL | Meet the Scientist

Professor Lisa Collins

Professor of Animal Science | N8 Chair in Smart Agri-Systems | Director of the National Pig Centre | Head of School of Biology | Deputy Director Global Food and Environment Institute (Commercial Research) 

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What project/s are you currently working on?
We have just commenced work on a flagship five-year interdisciplinary research project called FixOurFood led by the University of York that has a vision to transform food systems across the UK towards being ‘regenerative’. We will be working with a broad range of stakeholders to trial different scalable interventions at the University of Leeds farm, utilising the arable land in conjunction with our outdoor pig research facility at the National Pig Centre (NPC), to find solutions that are truly regenerative, transformational, practical and adoptable.

We are also now entering the final few months of a four-year research project PigSustain, which draws upon a multi-systems approach to explore the future resilience of the UK pig industry. In this project we have developed an on-farm monitoring system that can provide an early warning indicator and automated assessment of pig health and welfare status, alongside a complex systems model that can be used to assess the economic resilience and global competitiveness of the UK pig industry in the face of current and future challenges. We are currently expanding our work on this project to look at the impact that Covid19 has had on our industry, and build this into our results.

I’m also currently working on a number of other ongoing research projects, including a BBSRC-CONICET project with Argentina that is investigating antimicrobial resistance in Argentine broiler poultry systems; a data-driven BBSRC International Partnership Award with Pennsylvania State University that seeks to unravel issues in the biology of individual differences in relation to animal health and welfare; and a Knowledge Transfer Partnership (KTP) with Karro Food Group.

What capability are you drawing on to deliver the research?
Many of our research projects utilise the National Pig Centre (NPC) and its state-of-the-art capabilities at the University of Leeds.

Its advanced indoor technology allows for individual pig monitoring that facilitates our research into animal health, welfare, behaviour and nutrition and the use of the outdoor system for the FixOurFoodproject allows us to look at one of the key potential solutions for sustainability which is the interaction and integration of livestock and crops. In terms of delivering the research, we also draw upon a broad range of skillsets and academic expertise that includes: animal health and welfare, animal nutrition, livestock production, data analytics, artificial intelligence, soil science, environmental science, agronomy, optimisation of crop growth, Earth observation, sustainability and climate change. At the moment we are particularly expanding our focus around sustainability.

What would be your ideal research project, assuming no barriers!
I would really love to complete a large-scale, in-depth, multi-skilled study on individual variability and get to the heart of what drives variability between animals. Despite having similar early-life experiences, being housed in similar environments and being fed the same diets, we still see variabilities between individuals which drives their perceptions of the environments they are kept in and produces different outcomes. We know that animals experience the same settings in different ways – some will thrive, whereas others will not – and I would love to explore the drivers behind this.

By measuring and monitoring everything from genetics, to nutrition, health and behaviour throughout the lifecycle of the individual, and then capturing it on a monumental scale, might help us to pull together a clear narrative around what makes an animal unique. This relates back to what makes us unique as human beings, and how typology and biology combine to create individualised experiences. Once we can fully unearth this mystery, we can then take actions to minimise variation between individuals and explore how living situations can be tailored to account for differences in behaviours and personalities – ultimately providing animals with higher welfare, improved performance, and a better life. Pigs are a really good model system and the capabilities of the NPC to monitor individual diets and each pig from birth to slaughter provides an exciting opportunity to explore pioneering studies of this nature and scale.

How did you arrive at doing what you do now?
I’ve always been interested in sustainability – being born into a farming family, agriculture and sustainability were two of my biggest passions from a young age. I always wanted to run a farm and was involved in lots of environmental campaigning, local wildlife protection and sustainability activities growing up.

I completed a Master’s degree in Biological Sciences and then went on to do a PhD in quantitative welfare epidemiology at the University of Oxford. Having worked on multiple species looking at health and welfare problems using big datasets, my interests have organically expanded over the years and so now I’m interested in lots of different things and love learning about new research areas and disciplines. Being introduced to new businesses and commercial ideas excite me – I like to think about how they might impact the work that I’m doing, and how this might change the way we look at livestock and animal health and welfare. This interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary approach to research is what I really enjoy, hence taking on the roles of the N8 Chair in Smart Agri-Systems and Director of Commercial Research for the Global Food and Environment Institute.

What do you think are the key challenges facing livestock agriculture and food production now, and pig farming in particular?
I think the key challenges facing livestock agriculture, pig farming and the wider food system are the same – it’s the triple challenge of ensuring we provide healthy and nutritious diets for consumers whilst farming in a way that doesn’t deplete our natural resources and protects our environment, and doing all of this in a way that safeguards farming livelihoods. Often solutions are explored that may improve environmental impact but this can have a knock-on effect on productivity and on livelihoods, so we need to balance these three things really carefully.

For the pig industry, sustainability is the biggest challenge and there are multiple aspects to this: We need to look at the inputs of the system in terms of protein sources going into the animals, and balance soy alternatives to avoid negatively affecting feed conversion ratios and therefore docking carbon footprint gains by having to feed more. We also need to look at the outputs of the system in terms of our emissions and how we manage manure, and whether there are systems or technologies that we can put in place to allow us to adopt a more circular economy, and use our waste in other sustainable ways. Endemic disease is a big problem that we have to tackle across the whole of the livestock sector that is leading to wastage through animal culling, but also slower growth, meaning animals needing to be fed more over longer periods of time, and an increase in antibiotics going into the system which is introducing more antimicrobial resistance.

All of these challenges require investment – but this needs to be balanced simultaneously to protect the livelihoods of the farmers who are growing these animals.

Find out more about our Founding Research Member, the University of Leeds.

Professor Lisa Collins | Meet the scientist | CIEL | agrifood