With the world’s first global inventory of farm animals showing many
breeds of African, Asian, and Latin American livestock at risk of
extinction, scientists from the Consultative Group on International
Agricultural Research (CGIAR) called for the rapid establishment of
genebanks to conserve the sperm and ovaries of key animals critical for
the global population’s future survival.
An over-reliance on just a few breeds of a handful of farm animal
species, such as high-milk-yielding Holstein-Friesian cows, egg-laying
White Leghorn chickens, and fast-growing Large White pigs, is causing
the loss of an average of one livestock breed every month according to
a recently released report by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization
(FAO). The black-and-white Holstein-Friesian dairy cow, for example, is
now found in 128 countries and in all regions of the world. An
astonishing 90 percent of cattle in industrialized countries come from
only six very tightly defined breeds.
The report, "The State of the World’s Animal Genetic Resources,"
compiled by FAO, with contributions by the International Livestock
Research Institute (ILRI) and other research groups, surveyed farm
animals in 169 countries. Nearly 70 percent of the entire world’s
remaining unique livestock breeds are found in developing countries,
according to the report, which was presented to over 300 policy makers,
scientists, breeders, and livestock keepers at the First International
Technical Conference on Animal Genetic Resources, held in Interlaken,
Switzerland, from 3-7 September 2007.
"Valuable breeds are disappearing at an alarming rate," said Carlos
Seré, Director General of ILRI. "In many cases we will not even know
the true value of an existing breed until it’s already gone. This is
why we need to act now to conserve what’s left by putting them in
In a keynote speech at the scientific forum on the opening day of
the Interlaken conference, Seré called for the rapid establishment of
genebanks in Africa as one of four practical steps to better
characterize, use, and conserve the genetic basis of farm animals for
the livestock production systems around the world.
"This is a major step in the right direction," said Seré. "The
international community is beginning to appreciate the seriousness of
this loss of livestock genetic diversity. FAO is leading
inter-governmental processes to better manage these resources. These
negotiations will take time to bear fruit. Meanwhile, some activities
can be started now to help save breeds that are most at risk."
ILRI, whose mission is poverty reduction through livestock research
for development, helps countries and regions save their specially
adapted breeds for future food security, environmental sustainability,
and human development.
Industrialized countries built their economies significantly through
livestock production and there is no indication that developing
countries will be any different. Worldwide today, one billion people
are involved in animal farming and 70 percent of the rural poor depend
on livestock as an important part of their livelihoods. "For the
foreseeable future," says Seré, "farm animals will continue to create
means for hundreds of millions of people to escape absolute poverty."
In recent years, many of the world’s smallholder farmers abandoned
their traditional animals in favor of higher yielding stock imported
from Europe and the US. For example, in northern Vietnam, local breeds
comprised 72 percent of the sow population in 1994, and within eight
years, this had dropped to just 26 percent. Of the country’s fourteen
local pig breeds, five are now vulnerable, two are in critical state,
and three are facing extinction.
Scientists predict that Uganda’s indigenous Ankole cattle–famous
for their graceful and gigantic horns–could face extinction within 20
years because they are being rapidly supplanted by Holstein-Friesians,
which produce much more milk. During a recent drought, some farmers
that had kept their hardy Ankole were able to walk them long distances
to water sources while those who had traded the Ankole for imported
breeds lost their entire herds.
Seré notes that exotic animal breeds offer short-term benefits to
their owners because they promise high volumes of meat, milk, or eggs,
but he warned that they also pose a high risk because many of these
breeds cannot cope with unpredictable fluctuations in the environment
or disease outbreaks when introduced into more demanding environments
in the developing world.
Cryo-banking Sperm and Eggs Scientists and conservationists alike
agree that we can’t save all livestock populations. But ILRI has helped
lay the groundwork for prioritizing livestock conservation efforts in
developing regions. Over the past six years, it has built a detailed
database, called the Domestic Animal Genetic Resources Information
System (DAGRIS), containing research-based information on the
distribution, characteristics, and status of 669 breeds of cattle,
sheep, goats, pigs and chickens indigenous to Africa and Asia.
Seré proposes acceleration of four practical steps to better manage farm animal genetic resources.
- A first strategy is to encourage farmers to keep genetic
diversity "on the hoof," which means maintaining a variety of
indigenous breeds on farms. In his speech, Seré called for the use of
market-incentives and good public policy that make it in the farmer’s
self-interest to maintain diversity.
- Another way to
encourage "keeping it on the hoof," Seré said, is by allowing greater
mobility of livestock breeds across national borders. When it comes to
livestock, farmers have to "move it or lose it," he said. Wider
distribution of breeds and access to them makes it less likely that
particular breeds and populations will be wiped out by fluctuations in
the market, civil strife, natural disasters, or disease outbreaks.
- The third approach that Seré is championing is a longer term one with
great future potential for resource-poor farmers. It goes by the name
of "landscape genomics" and it combines advanced genomic and
geographical mapping techniques to predict which breeds are best suited
to which environments and circumstances around the world.
- But for landscape genomics–or any of the other approaches–to work, of
course, scientists will need a wide variety of livestock genetic
diversity to work with. For this reason, the fourth approach Seré is
advocating is long-term insurance to "put some in the bank," by
establishing genebanks to store semen, eggs, and embryos of farm
"In the US, Europe, China, India, and South America, there are
well-established genebanks actively preserving regional livestock
diversity," said Seré. "Sadly, Africa has been left wanting and that
absence is sorely felt right now because this is one of the regions
with the richest remaining diversity and is likely to be a hotspot of
breed losses in this century."
But setting up genebanks is a first important step towards a
long-term insurance policy for livestock. Seré noted that genebanks by
themselves are not the only answer to conservation, particularly if
they end up becoming "stamp collections" that are never used.
"Individual countries are already conserving their unique animal
genetic resources. The international community needs to step forward in
support," said Seré. "We support FAO’s call to action and the CGIAR
stands ready to assist the international community in putting these
words into action."
CGIAR. September 2007.