Agriculture & Environmental Resilience
Animal production, health, welfare and behaviour plus environmental impact, coupled with monitoring agricultural or climate-change influences on ecosystem resilience, all fall under this wide-ranging theme. As the largest research grouping within IGFS, it spans fundamental and applied sciences, the latter bolstered by a strategic alliance with Northern Ireland’s Agrifood and Biosciences Institute (AFBI).
The critical mass, interdisciplinarity and breadth of research allows this theme to respond to key priorities such as the UN Sustainability Development Goals (Climate Action, Life Above Land, Life Below Water, Partnerships to Achieve Goals) and many UKRI priorities. For example, researchers are well-placed to help deliver UK carbon neutrality by 2050.
Theme members have secured over £11M in total from H2020 and BBSRC. Together with the School of Natural and Built Environment, this theme also hosts the UKRI-NERC funded QUADRAT doctoral training programme (£2.6M, 2019-2027) and has secured funding to develop novel methods to reduce GHG emissions in ruminants.
Recent recruitment in this team has further strengthened capacity in animal and environmental microbiomes and global-change biology across 31.3 FTE academic staff (3 ECRs), 20.4 PDRFs and 81 PhD students.
SeaSolutions is an international €1.5M project involving partners from five European countries plus Canada. IGFS researchers, under the direction of Professor Sharon Huws, are exploring the use of native Irish seaweeds to see if they can reduce GHG emissions from farm livestock.
SeaSolutions aims to research and provide evidence for using seaweed feeds for the reduction of methane emissions from farm animals. The project will combine the talent of internationally recognised scientists and the agrifood industry with the use of ICT in animal-feeding studies (LRCpH system, metabolic chambers equipped with gas chambers and data acquisition systems, use of RFID tags in feeding trials and remote monitoring of methane emissions using GreenFeed systems).
While previous research has focused on housed ruminants, this project will seek to reduce methane emissions in pasture-raised animals. The generation of data (economic and scientific) should provide a business model, encouraging further developments in this area. Economic and life-cycle analysis will be looked at in depth.
Working towards the development of seaweed feeds that are both nutritious and palatable, bioactive and dose-specific, the project will enhance precision-feeding approaches that could be adapted by farmers. There will also be an emphasis on more efficient use of local seaweed in any future livestock feeding.
MASTER – Microbiome Applications for Sustainable food systems through Technologies and EnteRprise - is a €10.9M H2020 project in total, with the Northern Ireland component led jointly by IGFS and the Agrifood and Biosciences Institute (AFBI), under the auspices of the Queen's-AFBI Alliance.
Although microorganisms dominate almost every ecological niche in our planet, it has only been during the past 10-15 years that we have begun to gain insights into the composition and function of microbial communities (microbiomes) as a consequence of major advances in High Throughput DNA Sequencing (HTS) technologies.
These approaches have allowed a comprehensive analysis of microbiomes, but most of this research has been in the clinical space. In contrast, far less is known about microbiomes across complex foodchains.
MASTER aims to improve the quantity, quality and safety of food, across multiple food chains, to include marine, plant, soil, rumen, meat, brewing, vegetable waste, and fermented foods, on a global scale.
This will be achieved through mining microbiome data relating to the foodchain, developing big-data management tools to identify inter-relations and generating applications which promote sustainability, circularity and contribute to waste management and climate-change mitigation.
The aim is to harness microbiome knowledge to significantly enhance the health and resilience of fish, plants, soil, animals and humans; improve professional skills and competencies; and support the creation of new jobs in the food sector and bioeconomy.
Research led by Professor Niamh O’Connell and colleagues investigated methods of improving the environment for both laying hens and broiler chickens housed in intensive systems - with direct impact on animal-welfare policies and industry standards.
Broiler chicken production is big business, with an average of 20M broilers slaughtered per month in the UK. Public perception of broiler welfare is poor and, with no legal requirements for environmental enrichment, broiler producers are creating their own 'higher welfare' systems to meet a growing consumer demand. Over the last decade, Prof O’Connell and her team have worked closely with leading industry producers to provide evidence-based advice on ways to enhance broiler housing.
One large-scale study by this research group revealed the benefits of providing windowed housing, with access to natural light leading to improved litter condition, an increase in broiler activity levels and improved walking ability. This was the first peer-reviewed study of its kind and is widely referred to globally in animal-welfare policy and advocacy documents. As a direct result, one of Europe's largest chicken producers, NI-based Moy Park, has fitted out all its chicken houses with windows.
A different project in collaboration with Skea Eggs Ltd explored the ability of aerial perches to reduce aggressive behaviour and improve hen welfare under free-range conditions. The results demonstrated a clear benefit. Subsequent research demonstrated health and welfare benefits associated with the use of straw bales, pecking objects and dustbaths.
The research has directly influenced animal-welfare standards, including:
- Red Tractor standards for meat chickens (affecting 1 billion UK chickens per year); RSPCA Australia standards for meat chickens
- RSPCA Assured standards for laying hens and included in a case study in standards (affecting 1,200 farms and 23.5M laying hens in the UK)
- Major NGO-led initiative ('the Big Ask') estimated to ultimately impact 10% of US broiler production (currently approximately 920M broilers per year)
Queen’s University spin-out company Fjordstrong has secured £316,000 in seed funding to develop innovative underwater surveying technology that will help conserve vulnerable marine species.
With Dr Jonathan Houghton as academic lead and founding director, the company successfully closed a funding round led by QUBIS Ltd, the commercialisation arm of Queen’s, and a number of private investors, on the back of securing ‘Aid for Start-up’ support from InnovateUK.
Fjordstrong, based at Queen’s Marine Laboratory in Portaferry on the shores of Strangford Lough, has developed a patented zero-impact biodiversity underwater survey system called Auto-release Baited Underwater Video (ABUV), designed to survey high-conservation-value species and protected marine areas.
The start-up was founded in 2019 after taking part in Innovate UK’s programme to accelerate the commercialisation of research from universities across the UK. It is now engaged with international NGOs and UK government agencies on projects supporting the conservation of critically endangered skates and rays. Additionally, and in collaboration with Inland Fisheries Ireland (IFI), Fjordstrong is now working with BlueWise (previously SmartBay) in Galway to explore how marine renewable energy infrastructure can play a role in protecting our most vulnerable wildlife.
FjordStrong’s work addresses several of the UN Sustainable Development Goals including Life Below Water and Climate Action.
Smallholder livestock production is crucial to the livelihoods of rural populations throughout Africa, but is experiencing many challenges which this BBSRC funded project aims to mitigate.
Climate change is making nutritional resources from grazing more unpredictable, and at the same time increasing threats from parasitic and other diseases. Investing more money to stave off these threats is out of the question for most subsistence farmers. This project seeks to build on successful previous work, in which targeted treatment of individual sheep and goats achieved substantial uplift in health and productivity with much lower costs than standard whole-herd treatment.
Further improvements to the system would be to replace chemical anthelmintics with plants shown to reduce parasite burdens. These plants grow locally and could be cultivated or sustainably harvested. Research on such plants shows a long list of candidates but evaluation of effects under real farming conditions is limited, therefore more research such as this project is urgently needed.
As a result of this project, tools will be created for rapid evaluation of and adaptation to disease and nutrition threats throughout Africa, to support sustainable production and food security in the poorest areas. The benefits of healthier livestock for household livelihoods are potentially immense and these socio-economic effects will also be researched, alongside projections of epidemiological risks and benefits across other farming systems in Africa.
Research Expertise in Agricultural Resilience & Climate Change
- Professor Sharon Huws
- Professor Nigel Scollan
- Professor Eric Morgan
- Professor Niamh O'Connell
- Professor Aaron Maule
- Professor Irene Grant
- Professor Chris Creevey
- Professor Mark Emmerson
- Professor Gordon Allan
- Professor John Hallsworth
- Professor John McGrath
- Professor Geoff McMullan
- Professor Nikki Marks
- Professor Jaimie Dick
- Professor Angela Mousley
- Professor Timothy Geary
- Professor Peter Leavitt
- Professor John Dalton
- Dr Deepak Kumaresan
- Dr Katerina Theodoridou
- Dr Linda Stewart
- Dr Gareth Arnott
- Dr Louise Atkinson
- Dr Jason Chin
- Dr Jonathan Dalzell
- Dr Tim Day
- Dr Geoff Gobert
- Dr Christopher Law
- Dr Fuquan Liu
- Dr Paul McVeigh
- Dr Mark Robinson
- Dr Isabella Capellini
- Dr Tancredi Caruso
- Dr Patrick Collins
- Dr Sarah Helyar
- Dr Domhnall Jennings
- Dr Hansjoerg Kunc
- Dr Daniel Pincheira-Donoso