Hardy Ankole cattle could disappear within 50 years
Livestock genebanks are needed to ensure the world's future food supply, says livestock expert Carlos Seré.
The genetic diversity of livestock is threatened worldwide, but especially in the global South, where the vast majority of farm animal breeds reside.
Documenting and conserving this diversity — of cattle, goats, sheep, swine and poultry — is just as essential as the maintenance of crop diversity for ensuring future food supplies in the face of health and environmental threats.
Just as we should know which crop varieties are most tolerant to flooding or disease, we should know which kinds of milking goat can bounce back quickly from a drought, which breeds of cow resist infection from sleeping sickness and which types of chicken can survive avian flu.
But while crop genes are being stored in thousands of collections across the world and a fail-safe genebank buried in the Arctic permafrost, no comparable effort exists to conserve livestock genes.
About one-fifth of the world's 7,616 breeds of domestic livestock are at risk of extinction. For example, hardy Ankole cattle, raised across much of East and Central Africa, are being replaced by high-yielding Holstein-Friesian dairy cows and could disappear within the next 50 years.
In Vietnam, the proportion of indigenous sows dropped from 72 per cent in 1994 to just 26 per cent eight years later. In some countries, chicken populations have changed practically overnight from genetic mixtures of backyard fowl to selected uniform stocks raised under intensive conditions.
In the North, just six tightly defined breeds account for an astonishing 90 per cent of all cattle. A 2007 report by the Food and Agriculture Organization showed that over-reliance on a small number of livestock breeds is resulting in the loss of around one breed every month.
Most endangered livestock breeds are in developing countries, where they are herded by pastoralists or tended by farmers who grow both crops and livestock on small plots of land. Faced with a daily struggle to survive, many of these farmers are unlikely to prioritise conservation of their rare breeds — at least not without significant support.
A helping hand
From Africa to Asia, farmers of the South, like the farmers in Europe and the Americas before them, are increasingly choosing the breeds that will produce more milk, meat and eggs to feed their hungry families and raise their incomes.
They should be supported in doing so. But we cannot afford to altogether lose the breeds that are abandoned. These not only have intrinsic value, but many also possess genetic attributes critical to coping with threats such as climate change or emerging pests and diseases.
We urgently need policy support for their conservation. This means creating incentives that encourage farmers to keep traditional animals. For example, breeding programmes could boost the productivity of local breeds, or farmers' could be helped to access niche markets for traditional livestock products.
Policymakers must also consider the value of indigenous breeds when designing restocking programmes following droughts, disease epidemics, civil conflicts and other disasters that deplete herds.
A global effort
But even with help, poor farmers cannot stem all the diversity loss in farm animal breeds.
We need a parallel, even bigger effort, to link local, national and international resources and conserve livestock genetic diversity through dedicated livestock genebanks. These should store frozen cells, semen and DNA of endangered livestock from across the world.
The technology is available — cryopreservation has been used for years to aid both human and animal reproduction.
Genebanks should also be used to conserve the legacy of 10,000 years of animal husbandry. Collections must be accompanied by comprehensive descriptions of the animals and the populations from which they were obtained and the environments under which they were raised.
We must do all we can to assist farmers and herders to conserve the farm animal breeds that have largely been selected and nurtured into existence by generations of farmers attuned to their environments.
But if some of these treasured breeds fail to survive the coming decades of rapid agricultural development and climate change, we should at least have faithfully stored and recorded their presence, and have preserved their genes. It is these genes that will help us feed humanity and cope with unforeseen crises.
Carlos Seré is director-general of the International Livestock Research Institute in Nairobi, Kenya.
This article was updated 22 June 2010. A previous version of this article stated that the 2007 report by the FAO was published by the FAO and ILRI. This statement was incorrect.
25 May 2010
Thanks Carlos. In addition, there is need to document local practices through which farmers manage and conserve their livestock. Knowledge that is held in research institutions and in the heads of scientists should be integrated with local experiences. At the moment, knowledge circulates among a few groups of people who publish papers and put some information on wikipedia. In most rural communities, outsiders have more information than local people. Information that has been extracted from rural communities by researchers and NGOs has not gone back to inform local decision - making. Farmers are always researching although they do not call what they do 'research'. In the 1980s, domestication of guineafowls was confined to a few farmers in Binga District of Zimbabwe. Today knowledge on guineafowl rearing has spread throughout the country, thanks to farmer to farmer knowledge sharing. Most of the practices used are not found in books or journals. Engaging farmers and local communities is critical because it provides the context under which animals are conserved and managed. While putting information in genebanks, we should be careful not to miss the richness of the local context. Charles Dhewa Knowledge Transfer Africa Harare Zimbabwe
USDA-Agricultural Research Service |
United States of America
25 May 2010
With a growing livestock sector there will be an increased need for gene banks as mentioned in this article. Fortunately, such a global effort has been initiated. Across all geographic regions national gene banks for livestock have or are becoming established. As a result the task of ex-situ conservation of a broad array of genetic resources has begun. Furthermore, these efforts are being encouraged through a series of workshops (in Tunisia and Equador)sponsored by: USDA, National Gene Bank of Tunisia, FAO, the Netherlands, Canada and ICARDA. At these workshops over 30 countries have participated in further developing technical and policy capacities at address this challenge.
25 May 2010
I fully agree with this. My concern is that the farmer has huge stake here and often well placed and suited to effectively carry out the task but often left out even at the discussion level. We must find ways of empowering the farmer with information and facilitation. Dolla
26 May 2010
I wholeheartedly support Carlos in this call for action - particularly in relation to Africa. Don't forget semen can be collected and frozen from the testes of slaughtered bulls and rams. This would provide a cheap way of sampling the breeds that farmers actually slaughter.
9 June 2010
Thanks Carlos for this short but very useful article. I concur with its contents. But my only concern is similar to that which has been raised by Dolla. When we talk of establishing gene-banks to conserve especially indigenous livestock breeds, where to we leave the livestock keepers who hitherto have played a very important (but often not recognized) role in creating and conserving these breeds for centuries?. We often forget that without their role in this, we could not have the genetic material to put into the genebanks in the first place. The crops people at least have a legally binding treaty in which Farmers Rights are clearly stated. An attempt to have a similar treaty in the animal genetic diversity group has not found much support. Without such legally binding instruments, one can only hope that the genebanks will not turn out be an avenue for dis-empowering the Livestock Keepers. I would suggest that debate on process of establishing genebank takes into account the aspect and find ways of involving the Livestock Keepers and safegurding their rights to access and control their genetic materials. Jacob Wanyama LIFE Network - Africa Region
International Livestock Research Institute |
28 June 2010
To Charles Dehwa (Zimbabwe): We fully agree with the need to document local practices that conserve animal genetic resources. These are, after all, what have managed to conserve the animal breeds and genes we use and find today! To Harvey Blackburn (USDA): We agree that livestock biobanking is being practiced in Europe and the Americas. And what you report of Africa is true, but we think only for the few countries you mention. For example, with the exception of South Africa and possibly Namibia, we know of no functioning livestock genebanks yet established in any of the countries of Sub Saharan Africa, which of course are home to many threatened livestock breeds. Furthermore, the structural and policy frameworks needed for the establishment of livestock genebanks in these countries remain as yet seriously inadequate. Perhaps more importantly, while establishment of livestock genebanks remains largely the responsibility of individual countries, the livestock breeds and genes that need to be conserved are of regional and global rather than national importance and value. Without support, most individual African countries are unlikely to develop effective genebanks or bio-banks in time to arrest the rapid and on-going genetic losses on the continent. And regarding at least some of the little bio-banking that is being done here, the tissues, DNA and other banked bio-items are as yet unaccompanied by the information that would ensure their future use in conservation work. Because most of the indigenous livestock of sub-Saharan Africa occur across rather than tidily within national boundaries, and because good genebanking is an expensive exercise, we think regional rather than country approaches may be the best options for protecting threatened native breeds and genes from extinction. We think neighbouring countries should be supported in developing agreed regional frameworks and policies on sampling, on storage access and on how the stored materials will be shared, as well as on such matters as the governance, location and management of any regional bio/genebanks and their associated databases. We think institutions such as ILRI and FAO should approach relevant regional organizations such as ASARECA, SADC and CORAF to request and support their leadership in this area. We believe we need to go beyond single-country workshops and, rather, help initiate and facilitate dialogue among groups of countries on the need for collective genebanking. And we would like to see pilots of such collective thinking and action supported by donor organizations such as USDA. As far as ILRI is aware, there is today no action to biobank African livestock systematically. And although FAO has (admirably) drawn up a series of phenotypic data conventions and ontologies, we see these to be as yet insufficient for the systematic phenotyping needed for conservation work of lasting value. To Dolla Nyapiedho (Rwanda): We fully agree with you about the need to empower farmers in this work --- for it is of course farmers who have always been the main custodians as well as developers of our agricultural biodiversity heritage. To Sandy McClintock (Australia): We continue to explore all tools available to us, including the collection of (cheap) semen from bulls and rams in Africa's slaughterhouses. We thank everyone for their interest in this important topic! Okeyo A. Mwai, Steve Kemp and Susan Macmillan, International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI)