The Connection Between Cattle, Methane, and Human Health: Improving Animal Health for Sustainable Livestock Production

It may not be initially apparent, but there is a significant link between cattle, methane emissions, and human health. The agricultural sector is a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, and a substantial portion of these emissions come from ruminant animals like cattle, sheep, and goats. These animals rely on microbes in their stomachs to digest plant material, but this digestive process also produces methane, a highly potent greenhouse gas.

While there is a growing discussion about reducing livestock consumption in wealthier countries, many individuals in lower-middle-income countries (LMICs) struggle with protein deficiency, leading to various health issues, particularly in young children. As the African population continues to increase, the demand for livestock products is also on the rise, but this poses challenges in terms of sustainability and climate resilience. How can we meet the growing demand for animal products while minimizing the environmental impact of livestock production?

One approach is to focus on improving animal health. Currently, disease accounts for a significant loss of animal production worldwide, with even higher numbers in LMICs. An ongoing project aims to measure the specific effects of various conditions on productivity and greenhouse gas emission intensity (the amount of GHG produced per kilogram of product). While the results are still preliminary, recent findings have shown:

Miscarriage among Tanzanian dairy cattle leads to a loss of milk and meat production, increasing the GHG emissions intensity of existing products by up to 14%. These losses could have supplied the protein needs of 1 million Tanzanians.

The mortality rate of beef calves within the first year of life in Kenya increases the GHG emissions intensity of Kenyan beef products by 6% and results in a loss of production that could have supplied beef to 3.6 million Kenyans.

By focusing on improving animal health, we can work towards sustainably increasing livestock production while minimizing its environmental footprint. Addressing these issues is crucial for meeting the protein needs of individuals in LMICs and ensuring the long-term health of both people and the planet.

This work is a collaboration between, Edinburgh Napier University, The International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), The Mazingira Centre (ILRI), The Centre for Tropical Livestock & Genetics, The Roslin Institute, Washington State University, The Nelson Mandela Institute (Arusha, Tanzania), Mekelle University (Ethiopia), FAO, The Global Research Alliance and the Environmental Defense Fund.

 Funding was obtained from the Environmental Defense Fund and Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.


Lab Plastics and a Circular Economy

Lisa McMillan – School of Applied Sciences, Edinburgh Napier University

HE Sector Biological Science research labs generate an estimated 5.5 million tonnes of plastic waste annually. If we consider Industry and the NHS, volumes of such contaminated plastics enter further orders of magnitude.

Globally, the most common approach to disposal of lab plastics is incineration. Just imagine what a difference it could make to the environment if these plastics could instead be safely recycled and made part of a circular economy? My colleague Jo Brown and I are determined to further contribute to making this goal a reality.

 During 2019 – following consultation with Napier’s waste contractor Enva and development of a decontamination process – we began recycling the plastics generated in our labs. This pioneering and innovative recycling initiative has to date re-routed 3.5 tonnes of plastic from general waste to dry mixed recycling; the scope and extent of the project is, to our knowledge, unique.

 Sharing our work quickly became a key aspect of the initiative. Our first presentation to a technicians’ conference at Queens University Belfast in 2020 gave a first glimpse of what we had tapped into. We received an overwhelming response from others keen to make change in their own labs. In house since then, associated improvements to lab sustainability are now a key feature of the university’s progress towards meeting net zero obligations. Having led on Napier signing up to The Laboratory Efficiency Assessment Framework (LEAF), it’s great to see our labs recently achieving 6 awards and demonstrating savings of £6,900 and 11 tonnes of CO2! The work has even influencedthe institutions waste contract tender process, ensuring future continuity of the recycling.

 Interest has continued to grow and to date we estimate to have had the privilege of communicating the work to more than 300 organisations. To be asked to share the work at such prestigious events as the Royal Society of Biology’s 2022 Accreditation Conference and with key organisations such as the Institute for Cancer Research is so encouraging. Vitally, we continue to share and exchange best practice with many institutions and the ripple effect of positive change is a real motivator.

 The potential for change that this work represents is feeding a paradigm shift across the HE sector and beyond, leading many to question long established norms of lab waste disposal.  

This significant opportunity for change has been recognised by the THE Times Higher Education Awards 2023 with a shortlisting in the Outstanding Contribution to Environmental Leadership category.

If that all sounds positive it is (!), but here’s the thing. Since we began sharing our work the question most asked, unsurprisingly is ‘how do you decontaminate the plastics’. People really want to know the fine detail in terms of trying to replicate in their own labs. Despite an obvious appetite for change, progress elsewhere has been slow. One key reason for this is validation; people want to see our sterility proven.

It’s no longer about what we do and how we do it, rather it’s about proving the efficacy of what we do.

To this end the Institute of Science and Technology are kindly supporting development of this next phase of work, this support is hugely appreciated. This will facilitate some fundamental groundwork and the subsequent publication, by peer review of our validation processes.

This is only a beginning but, being able to validate our sterility process will be a game changer. It will provide a crucial piece of the jigsaw that will showcase these plastics (recall the quantities mentioned above!) to be a safe potential alternative to virgin resources in downstream manufacturing processes. This in turn can help influence relevant future health and safety policies, recycling policies and infrastructure, necessary markets etc.

Until now, contaminated lab plastics and circular economies have rarely been part of the same conversation.  We may have been quoted ‘accidental pioneers’ in lab plastic recycling but the time is coming where through our efforts we can truly begin to move this conversation on.