Genebanks needed to save farm animal diversity of the South—and assure the world’s future food supply

Carlos Sere amongst farm animals

Opinion piece in by Carlos Seré, Director General ILRI

Today, scientists are reconstructing the genomes of ancient mastodons, found in the frozen north. Dreams of resurrecting lost species rumble in the collective imagination. At the same time, thousands of still-existing farm animal breeds—nurtured into being by generations of farmers attuned to their environments—are slipping into the abyss of extinction, below the wire of awareness.

Livestock genetic diversity is highly threatened worldwide, but especially in the South, where the vast majority of remaining diversity resides. This diversity—of cattle, goats and sheep, swine and poultry—is as essential to the future world food supply as is the crop diversity now being stored in thousands of collections around the world and in a fail-safe crop genebank buried in the Arctic permafrost. But no comparable effort exists to conserve the animals or the genes of thousands of breeds of livestock, many of which are rapidly dying out.

Hardy and graceful Ankole cattle, raised across much of East and Central Africa, are being replaced by black-and-white Holstein-Friesian dairy cows and could disappear within the next 50 years. In Viet Nam, the percentage of indigenous sows declined from 72 per cent of the total population in 1994 to only 26 per cent just eight years later. In some countries, national chicken populations have changed practically overnight from genetic mixtures of backyard fowl to selected uniform stocks raised under intensive conditions.

Some 20 per cent of the world’s 7,616 breeds of domestic livestock are at risk, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. And change is accelerating. Holstein-Friesian dairy cows are now raised in 128 countries in all regions of the world, and an astonishing 90 per cent of all cattle in the North are of just six tightly defined breeds.

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. With survival a day-to-day issue for many of these small-scale farmers, they are unlikely to make conservation of their rare breeds a priority, at least not without significant assistance. From Africa to Asia, farmers of the South, like the farmers of Europe, Oceania 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. At the same time, the breeds that are being left behind not only have intrinsic value, but also may possess genetic attributes critical to addressing future food security challenges, in developed or developing countries, as the climate, pests and diseases all change. Policy support for their conservation is needed now. This support could be in the form of incentives that encourage farmers to keep traditional animals. For example, policies could support breeding programs that increase the productivity of local breeds, or they could facilitate farmers’ access to niche markets for traditional livestock products. And policymakers should take the value of indigenous breeds into account when designing restocking programs following droughts, disease epidemics, civil conflicts or other disasters that deplete animal herds.

But even such assistance will not enable developing-world farmers to stem all the losses of developing-world farm animals. A parallel, even bigger, effort, linking local, national and international resources, must be launched to conserve livestock genetic diversity by putting some of it ‘in the bank’. The cells, semen and DNA of endangered livestock should be conserved—frozen—and kept alive. The technology is available and has been used for years to aid both human and animal reproduction. It should also be used to conserve the legacy of 10,000 years of animal husbandry. Furthermore, such 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 should know the type of milking goat that is able to bounce back quickly from a drought. We should know the breeds of cow that resist infection with the animal form of sleeping sickness. We should know the native chickens that can survive avian flu.

We should do all we can to assist farmers and herders in the conservation of these endangered animals—especially now, in the midst of rapid agricultural development. And if some of these treasured breeds fail to survive the coming decades of 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 keep all our options open as we look for ways to feed humanity and to cope with coming, yet unforeseen, crises.

3 thoughts on “Genebanks needed to save farm animal diversity of the South—and assure the world’s future food supply

  1. Carlos
    Many thanks for posting and sharing this rather important “opinion piece”.  What struck me is your reference to the rapid loss of indigenous sows in Vietnam in only 8 years. The country has emerged from a war, roads have been built, urbanization boosted and consumption increased sharply. This dramatic scene is spreading all over the developing countries; the sanctuary of the local breeds of crops and livestock. The pace of loss is alarmingly fast, but the global indifference is discouraging! The Americans needed a BP oil spill to be talking seriously about valuation of Carbon!  The European and American stores are selling teff, millet, sorghum, chenoa, amaranth  and other  food crops (what the scientists called until very recently the non-conventional food crops!!) to an increasing number of celiac (gluten intolerant)  patients. Sadly the world reacts to crisis when it is too late in spite of the availability of handy remedies and risk aversion measures. Safe storage of semen and genetic traits is a simple and available technology which I have seen in the human fertility clinics of many developed/developing countries. I strongly support this opinion and call for the emerging supporters of the global challenges such as, BMGF and Mo Ibrahim Foundation to embrace it. Of the many benefits from such support would be the creation of new scientists and new sciences that look at the planet as a place to sustain the current and future generations.  Ahmed 

  2. From Carlos Sere and Steve Kemp:

    Ahmed: Thanks for your supportive note. I think we agree that it is very technically do-able to freeze embryos or gametes.


    However, we see the particular challenges for livestock genetic resources as two-fold: (1) political and (2) creating a systematic means of recording some approximation of the phenotype of what is stored.

    For plants, it is very easy to do side-by-side comparisons for hundreds of traits, and it is easy to bring plants out of storage to test a new trait. For livestock, that will be much harder, possibly impossible. So we think it is important to do the best we can to describe all aspects of phenotype of what is preserved — including descriptions of the given farming system from which the livestock sample was obtained, any indigenous knowledge about the animal, and its physical and biological environments.
    —Carlos Sere and Steve Kemp
  3. Susan
    I agree  with the comparsion you made between plants and animals. Also I think the on-going works on  describing the phyoypic and farming systems aspects of what is being preserved, and on tackling the policy issues should continue and should be strengthend. However, one pressing issue is the fact that the animal species are dissappearing at an alarming rate. This could be addressed by a fast track approach such as that one proposed by Carlos. The contraversial ethical and moral issues, I hope, should not stand on the way of safe storage of dissapearing animal species. Ahmed

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