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Thinking forward through the past: Linking science, social science and the humanities to inform the sustainable reduction of endemic disease in British livestock farming.

Posted by. Professor Karen Sayer
Posted on 12 February 2018


​Karen Sayer, Professor of Social and Cultural History at Leeds Trinity University, is one of six world-leading researchers to have been awarded a grant to collaborate in the study of issues around livestock health and sustainability.

In this blog Karen explains more about her research.

The focus of our proposed research is endemic livestock disease. Such diseases are a major problem in British livestock farming. Unhealthy animals have a higher carbon footprint, which means these diseases have implications for the environment, and they can potentially impact on human health by encouraging antibiotic use which leads to antimicrobial resistance.

Cutting across the traditionally separate realms of nature and culture, science and society, human and animal, our project foregrounds the much neglected human element as a key influence on the dissemination and control of endemic livestock disease, and develops an innovative, interdisciplinary approach to investigating its influence over time. Our intention is to generate new insights and perspectives on endemic livestock diseases which will have a real and lasting impact on policy and practice.

The goal of our project is therefore to help develop more resilient farming systems that are capable of adapting to a changing world in ways that will promote animal, human and environmental health, and build consumer trust.

The project involves social scientists, historians and modellers working together. The historical analysis will be UK-wide, but social scientific and epi-economic analysis will focus specifically upon farms in the North. Because different types of farming system operate differently, and have different histories and disease vulnerabilities, we will look at two of the most prevalent and costly endemic diseases within two pairs of farming systems: indoor dairy farming systems (where cows are inside all year) and pasture-based dairy farming systems (grazing outside for at least part of the year); and lowland and upland sheep and beef farming systems.

Our research is grounded in a philosophy of knowledge exchange which views stakeholders as co-producers as well as consumers of knowledge about livestock disease. These partners will play a vital role in developing our knowledge of the problem, testing our assumptions in investigating it, sense-checking our findings and guiding our engagement programme.

What we are fundamentally aiming to achieve is a new understanding of how the human element impacts on the nature and control of disease, and of how it can be modified for the collective human/animal good.

We also need to use this knowledge to make a difference. There are various ways in which we are going to do this. My own task involves working with the Museum of English Rural Life (in Reading) to deposit and advertise newly digitised films and oral histories, and we plan to seek follow-on funding for a programme of public engagement activities. This programme will aim to stimulate public debate and raise awareness of issues surrounding livestock production now, in the past and the future.

Image courtesy​ of Museum of English Rural Life.