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CGIAR: Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research
Nourishing the Future through Scientific Excellence

Practical Steps to Preserve the World's Barnyard Diversity

The International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) is calling for immediate, practical steps to preserve developing countries' dwindling wealth of animal genetic diversity, which is vital for enabling livestock production to meet new challenges, such as climate change and emerging animal diseases. This is the central message of a keynote address presented by ILRI Director General Carlos Seré at the first International Technical Conference on Animal Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture , held at Interlaken, Switzerland, September 3-7.

Blueprint for Global Action

Organized by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the conference marks the culmination of a process begun in 1999 to prepare the world's first-ever global assessment of the current status of these resources and of major trends affecting them. Entitled The State of the World's Animal Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture , the document draws on 169 country reports and on contributions from various international organizations.

In addition to formally launching this report, the conference was organized to negotiate and adopt a Global Plan of Action for Animal Genetic Resources , based on priorities identified in preparing the global assessment. The action plan represents a major step toward the construction of a comprehensive institutional and policy framework for preserving and providing access to animal genetic resources - comparable to the one that already exists for plant resources.

But this effort to protect "barnyard diversity" is not yet sufficiently supported by research capacities and by a worldwide network of gene banks like those that underpin the work on plants. According to the global assessment, 63 percent of the reporting countries do not have facilities for in vitro conservation of animal genetic resources, and many also lack livestock breeding programs. That is precisely why ILRI is now stressing the need, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, for decisive action on several fronts, including both in situ and ex situ conservation.

"The international community is beginning to appreciate the seriousness of the loss of livestock genetic diversity," said Seré. "FAO is leading inter-governmental processes to better manage these resources, but the negotiations will take time to bear fruit. Meanwhile, some activities can be started now to help save breeds that are most at risk."

From Revolution to Meltdown

Of the 7,616 breeds documented in FAO's Global Databank for Animal Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, about 20 percent are considered to be under threat of extinction, and over the last 6 years, livestock breeds have been lost at a rate of nearly one per month. The "meltdown" of this unique diversity is being driven principally by the rapid spread of large-scale, intensive animal production. This so-called "livestock revolution" is the product of a dramatic rise in demand for meat and other livestock products during recent decades, in response to population growth, rising incomes and urbanization.

Intensive production systems rely mainly on a few highly productive breeds, such as black and white Holstein-Friesian cows, which have almost entirely supplanted indigenous breeds in the industrialized world over the last 150 years. Consequently, 70 percent of the world's remaining livestock genetic diversity resides in developing countries, largely on small farms in remote regions.

But as livestock production has intensified in those countries as well, many small farmers have abandoned their traditional livestock breeds in favor of higher yielding stock imported from Europe and the USA. The resulting marginalization of traditional production on pastoral rangelands and mixed crop-livestock farms is placing the uniquely adapted animal breeds associated with these systems at risk of extinction.

"Valuable breeds are disappearing at an alarming rate," said Seré. "In many cases we will not even know the true value of an existing breed until it's already gone." For example, scientists predict that within 50 years Uganda's indigenous Ankole cattle - famous for their graceful and gigantic horns - could be entirely displaced by Holstein-Friesians, which are now found in 128 countries.

The danger, Seré explains, is that, "while exotic animal breeds offer short-term benefits by producing high volumes of meat, milk or eggs, many of them cannot cope with unpredictable disease outbreaks and other stresses, when introduced into more demanding environments of the developing world." During a recent drought in Uganda, for example, farmers that had kept their hardy Ankole cattle were able to walk them long distances to water sources, while those who had traded the Ankole for imported breeds lost entire herds.

From Information to Action

For the 70 percent of the rural poor who depend on livestock and for all of the organizations that are working to help them find a route of escape from poverty, there is a clear lesson in Uganda's experience with Ankole cattle. Unless these uniquely adapted livestock breeds are conserved and used, it is difficult to imagine how the livestock sector will be able to cope adequately with challenges such as climate change and emerging animal diseases.

Scientists and conservationists alike agree that it is not possible to save all livestock breeds. So, ILRI is helping provide a basis for prioritizing livestock conservation efforts. 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.

With the aid of such tools, Seré proposes the acceleration of four practical steps to better manage farm animal genetic resources.

  1. Keep it on the hoof: Give local farmers and communities incentives for maintaining local livestock breeds by, for example, improving poor farmers and herders' access to markets (including, perhaps, niche markets), where they can sell their traditional livestock products.
  2. Move it or lose it: Encourage safe movement of livestock populations within and between countries, regions and continents to facilitate better evaluation under different environments, and widen global access, use and conservation of farm animal genetic resources.
  3. Match breeds with environments: Optimize livestock production by expertly matching livestock genotypes with farmers' needs, natural resources, production systems and socio-economic circumstances. Such a novel approach, which scientists refer to as "landscape livestock genomics, " is made possible by ongoing breakthroughs in livestock reproductive technology and functional genomics as well as in bioinformatics and spatial analysis.
  4. Put some in the bank: Freeze semen, embryos and tissues of local breeds indefinitely to protect indigenous livestock germplasm against extinction and to serve as long-term insurance against catastrophic losses due to war, drought, famine and other future shocks.

"The USA, Europe, China, India and South America have well-established genebanks that are actively preserving regional livestock diversity," said Seré. "Sadly, Africa has been left wanting, and that absence is sorely felt now, because this region is among the richest in remaining diversity and is likely to be a hotspot of breed losses during this century."

"Individual countries are already taking steps to better conserve and use their unique animal genetic resources," said Seré, "and the international community needs to step forward in support of this work. The CGIAR applauds FAO's call for commitment and stands ready to help turn these words into action."

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