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Toughening animal agriculture for worse climate with ‘preventive breeding’–Scientific American


Minoan terracotta bull’s head, 14th-century BC (via Christie’s).

Across the developing world, animal diseases cause huge losses. Although we do not know the full economic cost of livestock diseases, it is likely to be very high. Various estimates suggests that the global costs are tens to hundreds of billions of dollars a year, with most of these losses occurring in developing countries.

Scientists from . . . CGIAR . . . are setting up a “preemptive breeding” program to develop livestock with resistance to potential widespread outbreaks of currently localized diseases to help reduce some of the losses that would occur.

‘. . . Okeyo Mwai, a livestock geneticist at the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) in Kenya [says:] “Most of the [livestock] problems are in Africa where the costs of treating diseases are huge. As climate change makes diseases spread to new areas, that figure will rise astronomically . . . .

CGIAR scientists presented their preemptive breeding strategy and new evidence of threats from climate change to the science advisory body of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change on June 4.

‘Current breeding strategies are inadequate because they are too slow to respond to disease outbreaks and climate challenges, the CGIAR researchers told the UNFCCC science advisory body. “The level of losses can be reduced if we proactively breed animals that are resistant and don’t require direct treatment,” Mwai says. . . .

‘For example, the Maasai tribe in Kenya have over many years bred sheep that are resistant to a deadly parasitic worm. The scientists are now working with these farmers to help introduce this breed to new areas that are suffering with high levels of the parasite. . . .

The scientists . . . are planning a research program that will use genome editing to take genetic material from resistant breeds and paste it into susceptible ones. This technology will allow a much more “precise” approach to creating animals with desirable traits.

‘In contrast, traditional breeding methods “mix and match” genes by mating individuals “in the hope” of producing individuals beneficial traits, Mwai says. But sexual reproduction offers no guarantees that offspring will exhibit the desired traits of the parents.

We need precision, not shotgun breeding, [Mwai] says.

Read the whole article by Natasha Gilbert in Scientific American, Preemptive genetics girds farmers for climate extremes and disease, 10 Jun 2015.

Read the new report, developed to inform decisions at the UN climate talks (Subsidiary Body for Scientific and Technological Advice of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change) in Bonn, Germany, in Jun 2015: Climate and livestock disease: Assessing the vulnerability of agricultural systems to livestock pests under climate change scenarios, Jun 2015, Working Paper No. 116, CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS), by ILRI scientists Delia Grace, Bernard Bett, Johanna Lindahl and Timothy Robinson.

View more CCAFS-published materials for UN climate talks in Bonn, Jun 2015 highlighting critical agricultural issues for the UN climate talk.

This article has been changed to correct a statement excerpted from the original Scientific American article saying that ‘Most of the world’s 38 billion livestock are kept in Africa’. Only some 2 billion poultry are in Africa, so this statement is inaccurate whether one takes the global poultry estimate to be 30.6 or 22.9 billion birds (at any one time). Compared to global estimates for 2013, Africa’s livestock populations are estimated by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) to be the following:

  • Cattle and water buffaloes: 0.3 of 1.7 billion = 18%
    Sheep and goats: 0.68 of 2.1 billion = 32%
    Pigs: 0.035 of 0.98 billion = 4%
    Poultry birds: 1.9 of 22.9 = 8%

A more accurate summary of the situation would be that Africa has about:

  • a fifth of the world’s large ruminants
  • a third of the world’s small ruminants
  • a small proportion of global pigs and poultry

In addition, the Scientific American article reported that animal diseases cost African farmers $300 billion a year; ILRI researchers estimate that this figure reflects the costs of the global rather than African disease burden; this blog article was changed accordingly.

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