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Research helps lower emissions from animal farming

Scientists at Roslin contribute to improving the sustainability of livestock, in line with UN goals on climate.

The Roslin Institute’s work supports the aims of the United Nations Conference of the Parties (COP26) by enabling sustainable livestock production and improved animal health and welfare, while reducing the climate impact of farming in the UK and internationally.

Roslin scientists are using world-leading research and knowledge translation to develop scientific, technical, and systematic solutions that will help achieve UN Sustainable Development Goals including zero hunger, while also helping decrease carbon emissions from farmed animal production.

Our commitment is set out in our statement on sustainability and net zero, available on our website.

Growing demand

Scientific developments that reduce the environmental impact of livestock are needed at a time when meat and dairy consumption is growing year-on-year.

Consumption is high in developed regions, uptake is increasing in Asia, and demand is growing in low- and middle-income countries, where animal farming is a key route from poverty and malnutrition.

Roslin’s research aims to help the farmed animal food system achieve net zero emissions without compromising global and national food and economic security, animal welfare or the eco-system.

Breeding low-carbon livestock

Advanced breeding, supported by genetics expertise and technology, reduces the climate impact of livestock by generating efficiencies throughout meat and dairy production.

Our world-leading research programmes target enabling the production of more food using fewer resources and fewer animals, enhancing welfare, and reducing losses to disease. Breeding more efficient animals, which use fewer resources, such as land, water, and feed, directly reduces the carbon footprint of livestock farming.

Selective breeding in farming has enabled improved efficiency in recent decades, to maintain the same production levels with fewer animals, and so reducing the environmental impact. For example, the UK dairy herd has reduced in size by more than one-quarter in the past 25 years, while producing the same amount of milk and needing less land.

Further benefits to sustainable livestock can be achieved through genome editing. We work with animal breeding companies to introduce precise changes to animal genomes that bring about beneficial changes, such as disease resistance, leading to higher animal welfare and a reduced carbon footprint.

Disease control

Roslin expertise includes developing ways to control infectious disease and keep livestock healthy, which reduces losses and improves sustainability of the sector.

Our research ranges from genetic tools to breed animals that can withstand infections, to developing vaccines and diagnostics, and data-driven tools to predict disease spread and aid decision-making.

For example, we found that precise removal of part of a gene in pigs prevents infection by the virus that causes porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome (PRRS), which could prevent the loss of millions of animals and the significant associated environmental costs.

Reduced carbon footprint

Researchers at Roslin are studying DNA of the microbes in cattle stomachs, to develop animals that produce lower levels of the potent greenhouse gas methane, so cutting emissions from one of its largest man-made sources.

Roslin is a world leader in applying genomic technologies to improve fish and seafood farming, which is the fastest growing food production sector, with benefits including nutritional products and a low carbon footprint. Aquaculture is more sustainable than other parts of the livestock food sector and is expected to make a major contribution towards livestock achieving Net Zero.

Meeting growing demand

Meanwhile, The Centre for Tropical Livestock Genetics and Health, a joint centre with our partners SRUC and ILRI, seeks to remove losses due to disease and improve livestock food production in tropical countries, with a major focus in Africa. Doing so will significantly improve the sustainability of livestock, and so reduce their carbon footprint of the growing sector in these regions, a vital area for investment in sustainability.

Elsewhere, our scientists are working with industry partners to develop insect animal feed as a low-carbon, protein-rich alternative to soya feed, potentially saving on land use, which can then be used for carbon capture or rewilding.

The climate crisis is one of the greatest problems humanity has faced, and we welcome the UK Government’s commitments as part of a global strategy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and rising global temperatures. Roslin’s research aims to make livestock production more efficient, while safeguarding health and welfare for animals, which could help meet the rising demand for food in a sustainable manner.

Professor Mick WatsonRoslin Institute

Related links

Read our full statement on mitigating the impact of livestock on climate change

Meat and Dairy Production - Our World in Data