Next Level Animal Sciences
A different perspective on animals and a new direction in research
The public debate on livestock farming and animals in nature continues unabated. The general message is that we need to change the way we treat animals: sustainably and responsibly whilst prioritising the well-being of humans, animals and nature. According to Ernst van den Ende, managing director of the Animal Sciences Group at Wageningen University & Research, that requires a different kind of research that is even more innovative.
“The position of animals in society is changing rapidly,” says Ernst van den Ende. It’s a reflection of how various social issues have converged, the managing director of the Animal Sciences Group explains. “Take the climate debate and the nitrogen problem, for example. The conversations around those issues increasingly draw attention to the role of livestock farming.” Animal diseases that pose a risk to human health, such as bird flu and Q fever in goats, are also influencing the debate. “The public is becoming increasingly critical of animal production systems. We see this in the many discussions taking place in society.”
Ethical issues relating to animals are also attracting more interest. “People think more consciously about their consumption choices and whether to make changes. We are talking about eating less meat for environmental and animal welfare reasons. People are worried about nature and the strain on biodiversity. Civil society organisations are calling for more emphasis on the careful monitoring and protection of our ecosystems on land and in the water. Some people even think that in a hundred years’ time, we might wonder how we ever kept animals.” For Van den Ende, such ethical debates underline both the importance of a sustainable and responsible future for livestock farming, and the Animal Sciences Group’s role in achieving this.
Animal welfare gets more attention
The fact that ethical questions are so high up the public agenda may result in big changes in the relatively short term in how farmers and researchers, for example, deal with animals. “At the start of 2022, the Council on Animal Affairs issued a report with six recommendations for responsible livestock farming,” explains Van den Ende. “Parties in the agricultural sector are due to draw up a covenant with new agreements; this will undoubtedly have consequences for how people keep animals. For example, one of the guidelines is that animals must be able to exhibit their natural behaviour when in captivity. The question is what we mean by ‘natural behaviour’ and how much of that natural behaviour an animal should then exhibit. Even so, it is clear this will spur changes.”
Bird flu also sparked a public debate about our interactions with animals. “Last year was the first time we have seen bird flu all year round in the Netherlands,” says Van den Ende. “Wild birds were literally falling out of the sky. That is cause for concern because the Spanish flu, which may have cost as many as 100 million human lives between 1918 and 1920, also started as an avian flu variant. The current concern is whether the present bird flu will mutate into a form that’s harmful to us, like COVID. This case, again, forces us to question the way we interact with animals and the effects of that on human and nature.”
Setting a new course
“All these discussions have prompted everyone in the Animal Sciences Group and WUR as a whole to reflect on the question of the role of animals in the food system, in nature, and in relation to the well-being of humans. That question serves as the point of departure for the research we are doing.”
‘Society is becoming increasingly critical of animal production systems. That is the point of departure for our research’
In fact, this very question goes beyond the borders of the Netherlands, says Van den Ende. Other Western countries have similar problems, even if they do not face such an intense accumulation of competing interests as the Netherlands does, where the building trade, industry and agriculture have to share nitrogen emission rights. In that regard, Van den Ende believes the Netherlands could play a pioneering role. “After all, the need to find solutions is most acute here.”
Sustainable and responsible livestock farming
The managing director says the demand for the production of animal proteins is increasing in emerging economies. “We get inquiries about this – for example, on how to boost livestock production in Asia. We want to play a role in this, but without automatically applying the same approach as in the current Dutch farming system. I believe we should show that there is an alternative. Even when it comes to international issues, our focus is on sustainable and responsible livestock farming.”
The Animal Sciences Group wants to take a broad look at all these issues. That is why the group will be concentrating on three themes in the years to come:
- Sustainable and responsible animal food production
- Health in human-animal interactions
- The role, behaviour and biology of animals
‘We want to inspire our researchers with new methods and techniques. It’s the chance encounters in the corridor that spark creativity’
New research methods are also needed to get a better picture of the animals themselves and their environment. That is precisely why the Next Level Animal Sciences (NLAS) programme was started in 2020. This four-year innovation programme has a budget of 12 million euros. Now scientists are working on approximately twenty projects in three lines of research: new sensor technology, data and models, and complex cell systems.
Fewer trials with lab animals
The ‘complex cell systems’ line of research is about developing organoids – simplified, miniature versions of organs. “Our aim is to have cell systems that you can eventually use to test things without needing lab animals,” explains Van den Ende. “For example, you can see how those cells respond to certain foods or diseases. This allows us speed up the research process and avoid some of the trials with lab animals. This is a relatively new development, even internationally. This is research for the long term, but it’s only logical to invest in it. Society is becoming less willing to accept lab animal testing.”
When it comes to the sensor technology line of research, Wageningen scientists are investigating new ways of using sensors, for example installed in the barn or fitted on the animal, to track the animal’s behaviour and use that information as input for improved decision-making. “Soon farmers will be able to detect health issues in cows, such as lameness, much sooner and take action to improve the situation immediately.”
In this regard, the use of sensors ties in neatly with the third line of research: data and models. “Large volumes of data need sophisticated data-processing techniques with smart software. Take our Dairy Campus innovation centre in Friesland. Milk is a by-product there: the most important thing the cows produce is data. The idea is to use all that data to see how you can reduce emissions or improve animal welfare.” In other projects too, the researchers input their data into complex computer models. Wageningen Marine Research does this in studies of biodiversity in and above the water.
Inspiring one another
The NLAS researchers have been asked to develop tools that will let the Animal Sciences Group set its new course. Other scientists will then be able to use them too. Van den Ende: “We want to inspire our researchers with new methods and techniques. That’s why we’re organising network meetings and facilitating the transfer of knowledge. And of course, you can also initiate a conversation at the coffee vending machine.”
“Those get-togethers, chance encounters in the corridor and conference lunches are just the kind of situations that spark creativity. The Animal Sciences Group is spread across various research groups and institutes all over the Netherlands. Van den Ende hopes to bring these communities together “so we can learn from one another. I think this will have major added value for all researchers, and will ultimately benefit animals, humans and nature.”
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