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  • Real Pork Trust Consortium

Urriola Presents Sustainable Systems Thinking Seminar to Iowa State Faculty

Dr. Pedro Urriola gives a presentation about systems thinking and the pork industry in a conference room

Applying Systems Thinking to Sustainability Research and Education


Understanding the entirety, recognizing and describing patterns, and comprehending the interconnections between pork production and the food and biofuel systems are crucial for devising sustainable solutions to today's challenges. With this objective in mind, Dr. Pedro Urriola, Assistant Professor of Animal Science at the University of Minnesota, recently engaged with faculty members at Iowa State University’s Animal Science Department to deliver a seminar on applying systems thinking to sustainability research and education.


Four Major Opportunity Areas


By viewing pork as an integral component of both the food and biofuel systems, transdisciplinary research groups are formulating solutions that tackle interconnected challenges and identify opportunities in four major areas [1]:


1. Integrated Nutrient Management for Pork Production


Just like humans and other living organisms, pigs respond to supply of nutrients for growth, health, reproduction, activities, and more. Yet, current nutrient partition models may mischaracterize how nutrients are used and prioritized, leading us to potentially underestimate the optimal supply of nutrients for animal health. Therefore, at the core of our research efforts lies the concept of integrated nutrient management [2].

By optimizing the utilization of feed ingredients and byproducts within the pork production system, our goal is to maximize efficiency while minimizing environmental impact. Through meticulous testing of ingredient processing techniques and feed additives, our aim is to enhance nutrient digestibility and foster sustainability throughout the pork supply chain.


2. Harnessing the Power of Cover Crops for Dual Benefits


New crops play a pivotal role in emerging food production and biofuel systems, serving not only to enhance soil health and water quality but also as valuable feed resources for livestock, including pigs. By using systems biology tools and exploring the nutritional value of cover crop grains and associated co-products, we are uncovering opportunities to fortify the resilience and efficiency of pork production systems while concurrently bolstering environmental sustainability [3].


3. Systems Biology and One Health


As scientists with a systems thinking mindset, our research toolkit extends beyond traditional nutrition studies to encompass systems biology. By leveraging cutting-edge tools and methodologies, such as microbiome and metabolomics, we delve into the physiological impacts of dietary interventions, such as zinc supplementation, on pig health and productivity. This holistic understanding enables us to optimize health outcomes while considering the interconnectedness of animal, human, and environmental well-being. We are also investigating how eradicating infectious diseases can enhance the sustainability of pork production.


4. Biosecurity and Circular Economy Principles


In an era marked by heightened concerns about infectious agents, our research endeavors to comprehend how pathogen survival may increase risk of disease transmission [4]. By developing risk modeling estimates for disease transmission via feed ingredients, our aim is to safeguard the health of pork production systems while upholding the circularity of the food system.


The Importance of a Systems Thinking Sustainability Approach

A systems thinking diagram of how systems thinking can be integrated into pork production through strategic research and practices


In embracing a systems approach to pork production, we are not only addressing current challenges but also paving the way for a more resilient and sustainable future. Through fostering interdisciplinary collaboration and innovation, we are positioned to revolutionize the way we produce pork, ensuring its pivotal role in both the food and biofuel systems.


Nevertheless, livestock farmers encounter a myriad of challenges and opportunities when integrating livestock into the food, fiber, and fuels nexus. As the Environment and Sustainability Lead for the Real Pork Trust Consortium, Dr. Urriola continuously seeks diverse perspectives and proposes solutions to enhance pork production.


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Selected References

[1] Gerald C Shurson, Pedro E Urriola, Sustainable swine feeding programs require the convergence of multiple dimensions of circular agriculture and food systems with One Health, Animal Frontiers, Volume 12, Issue 6, December 2022, Pages 30–40,

[2] Ramirez-Camba CD, Levesque CL. The Linear-Logistic Model: A Novel Paradigm for Estimating Dietary Amino Acid Requirements. Animals (Basel). 2023 May 22;13(10):1708. doi: 10.3390/ani13101708. PMID: 37238138; PMCID: PMC10215378.

[3] Özgün C Onarman Umu, Liv Torunn Mydland, Chi Chen, Marta Pérez de Nanclares, Gerald C Shurson, Pedro E Urriola, Henning Sørum, Margareth Øverland, Integrated multi-omics approach reveals novel associations in the rapeseed diet-microbiota-host axis in pigs, ISME Communications, 2024;, ycae061,

[4] Balestreri C, Schroeder DC, Sampedro F, Marqués G, Palowski A, Urriola PE, van de Ligt JLG, Yancy HF, Shurson GC. Unexpected thermal stability of two enveloped megaviruses, Emiliania huxleyi virus and African swine fever virus, as measured by viability PCR. Virol J. 2024 Jan 3;21(1):1. doi: 10.1186/s12985-023-02272-z. PMID: 38172919; PMCID: PMC10765680.


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