Africa’s native Ankole cattle, in Uganda (photo credit: East African Dairy Development project).
Jeremy Cherfas, of Bioversity International, one of 15 centres of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), headquartered in Rome, summarizes below the importance of conserving animal genetic resources in material the CGIAR is exhibiting at the meeting of the United Nations Convention on Biodiversity being held in Nagoya, Japan, this week.
Animal genetic resources and biodiversity
The agricultural biodiversity contained in the world’s domesticated livestock is disappearing at an unprecedented rate. Of the 7,616 breeds of domestic livestock reported to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), 1,491, or 20%, are classified as being ‘at risk’. At stake in this ‘livestock meltdown’ is nothing less than the animal basis for the world’s food security. Animal genetic diversity will be as important as plant diversity to adapt food production systems to changing conditions in coming decades. Traditional breeds offer diversity, the loss of which threatens food security and environmental stability.
Difficulties in conservation
Genebanks for animal genetic resources require long-term storage of semen, embryos or tissues in liquid nitrogen, frequently a more difficult and more expensive proposition than the conservation of plant genetic resources. Institutional capacity for the conservation of livestock genetic diversity is limited, with no international and only a few national ex situ collections, mainly in developed countries. Global capacity needs to be enhanced, with new institutional models and collaboration among public institutions and between public institutions and private farmers. Making sure that these local breeds and their diversity continue to contribute to the livelihoods of their keepers may be the most effective way to ensure their conservation. This may require research to improve the breeds and their management and new economic models to assess the value of animal production.
The migration of animal genes
An estimated 70% of the world’s known livestock breeds live in less developed countries, because in most of those countries commercial breeding has not yet taken hold, breeding stock is still traded without involvement of breeding organizations or companies, and many areas lack much capacity for artificial insemination. This diversity, however, is threatened by geneflow. Over the past four to five decades, the transfer of live animals and their semen and embryos from North to South has accelerated, propelled by globalization and the commercialization of animal breeding.
It is likely that the transfer of pig and cattle genotypes and breeding systems will increase rapidly in developing countries. In Vietnam, for example, the percentage of indigenous sows declined from 72% of the total population in 1994 to only 26% just eight years later. Of the country’s 14 local pig breeds, five are vulnerable, two are in critical state and three face extinction. In some countries, national chicken populations have changed practically overnight from genetically heterogeneous backyard fowl to selected homogeneous stocks raised under intensive conditions. Developing countries generally see the introduction of high-performance exotic animals as a solution to the low productivity of local breeds and methods of husbandry, even in areas where the exotic genotypes are ill-adapted and local breeds outperform crossbreds.
An unacknowledged priority
Whereas the public largely appreciates the need to conserve wild plant and animal diversity, the need to conserve and make better use of genetic resources is even less appreciated for livestock than for agriculturally important plants. One result is grossly inadequate characterization of local breed populations. Another is that the development of livestock genetic resources is left largely to the commercial sector, which focuses on internationally important high-performance breeds. A third is that policy makers and international and non-governmental organizations tend to ignore the ways in which people use livestock to secure their livelihoods and nutritional health, and the potential of animal genetic resources to improve on this traditional strategy.
The example of Ankole cattle
Ankole cattle are beloved by their keepers for their rich milk, their beauty and, at the end of a long life, their tasty meat. Their very large horns, marbled with blood vessels, are highly efficient at regulating body temperature and help to guard against predators. Ankole thrive on the poor-quality forage and limited water of East and Central Africa, and their genes have contributed to the success of breeds in similarly marginal environments around the world. And yet, in their homeland, they are increasingly being replaced by black-and-white Holstein-Friesian dairy cows for increased milk production. At their current rate of decline, it is possible that Ankole cattle will disappear within the next 50 years.
Read more about the on-going meeting in Japan of the Convention on Biological Diversity.