FAQs about saving livestock genetic resources

01.   What did ILRI/FAO find and how did you find it?
How: A global assessment of livestock genetic resources has been coordinated by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). The assessment aimed to determine the status of the world’s livestock resources – what exists and where, what are their characteristics and the risks they may be facing, and what is the capacity of nations to deal with these. As an international organization addressing poverty through sustainable livestock production, the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) develops research tools for characterizing livestock breeds of the developing world and assessing their diversity.

What?: The ‘assessment of the State of the World’s livestock resources’ (as this initiative was called) had the following findings:

  • Over 7000 breeds (representing mammalian and avian species) have been developed over the last 12,000 years, since the first livestock species was domesticated.
  • There are 40 livestock species used for food and agriculture, 5 of which – cattle, sheep, goats, pigs and chickens – account for most of the world’s food and agriculture production.
  • Some 696 breeds have become extinct since the early 1900s.
  • A total of 1,487 breeds are at risk, of which 579 are at critical levels (requiring immediate action).
  • Key causes of threat were identified (see examples below).
  • Lack of information on the world’s livestock resources—what livestock breeds and populations exist and  where, what are their characteristics, do they possess unique genetic diversity—was found to be a key impediment to their sustainable use.
  • Conservation programs are lacking, especially in developing countries where most of the world’s remaining breeds reside and where the risk of loss of livestock genetic resources is greatest

02.   Why do a few specialized ‘European’ breeds of farm animals dominate?

  • In pursuit of quick wins to increase productivity to meet demand, developing countries over the last half century have imported specialized, high-producing breeds, such as the black-and-white Holstein-Friesian dairy cow.
  • Aggressive promotion by breeding companies of the North.
  • Subsidized importation, usually through development assistance.
  • Exotic breeds have been imported into developing countries without adequate information on the robustness/hardiness/appropriateness of the native breeds the imports have been supplanting.

03.   How are the exotic imports faring in their various new locales in developing countries?
There are local niches where exotic breeds have proved productive. For example, Holstein-Friesian cows have done well in the East African highlands, which have temperate climate and adequate feed resources. However, the imports have been unable to cope with the disease, heat, humidity, scarce and poor-quality feed in many developing-country environments. Their inappropriateness for these stressful environments has tended to be discovered only after they have been widely used and have significantly ‘diluted’ the local gene pool, leaving local farmers without their traditional hardy animals.

04.   Why can’t we save all domesticated livestock breeds and populations?
Saving all existing livestock breeds around the world would require considerable investment. Fortunately, some specialized breeds in developed countries are currently safe or relatively safe because they remain popular with local communities and thus are supported by market forces. With globalization and ease of movement of traded commodities, there is increasing risk that fewer and fewer breeds will be supported this way. Many local traditional breeds support the livelihoods of the world’s poor livestock keepers in developing countries. While these native breeds are threatened by rapid changes occurring in the livestock production systems of poor countries, these countries lack the resources to conserve all their traditional native stock.

05.   Why is genetic diversity important in livestock?
Diversity is the basic ingredient for improving productivity, product quality and adaptation to meet different needs. It offers farmers and breeders the options needed to make adjustments to new market needs or to respond to changes in the production environment. A disease outbreak that wipes out a particular (susceptible) genetic type presents a greater risk in ‘monoculture’ (single-breed) production systems than it does in multi-breed systems. In other words, livestock diversity can help people cope with adversity while also providing prospects for livestock improvements. Changes in livestock production across the developing world, as well as an unpredictable future, require that these genetic options be safeguarded. It is particularly important to conserve livestock genetic resources because the ancestors of most of our existing livestock species no longer exist; crop breeding, on the other hand, has benefited enormously by being able to harness genes from the wild ancestors of our major crop plants.

06.   Can’t we just recreate desired traits via genetic engineering if necessary?
This will probably be technically feasible in the future for many production traits of interest in our livestock. And that is exactly why we need to have the diversity from which ‘new animal types’ could be created – whether through genetic engineering or conventional breeding (acceptability and costs, among others, will determine which ‘creation avenue’ is employed). Importantly, we do not know which traits we will need in future and which of the present breeds posses the requisite genes. Thus, as we develop technology and tools to conserve livestock genetic resources, we must also ensure that we have access to the raw materials—the livestock and/or their germplasm.

07.   Doesn’t industrialized agriculture obviate the need for such diversity?
As has happened in crop agriculture, industrialized livestock systems are typically characterized by a handful of specialized ‘breed types’. The chicken and pig industries have a few parental lines that form the basis of commercial chickens and pigs around the world. An outbreak of a disease to which these lines are susceptible could wipe out most of these animals, with disastrous global impacts. Thus, it is in the interests of both the public and private sectors to safeguard diversity in livestock as source of future options.

08.   How is foreign investment reshaping local livestock practices?

  • Direct foreign investment finances breeding companies that introduce foreign breeds.
  • The ‘supermarket revolution’, which is driven in many countries by foreign direct investment, is impacting livestock as well as crop agriculture in significant ways:

    o Standards required for food products sold in supermarkets influence such things as product quality, size  uniformity and timing of delivery.
    o The production volume needed to meet these food standards make it difficult for poor smallholders to participate in the supermarket revolution.
    o Contract-farming provides avenues for a few, well-informed and/or better-endowed farmers to participate in this revolution, sometimes through cooperatives.
   o But most smallholders are left out in this process.

09.   Do developed-world genebanks already hold some of this diversity material?
Developed-world genebanks hold very little livestock germplasm from developing countries—just a few breeds they may have imported for experimental evaluation. The major global flow of livestock genetic material has been from North to South. Currently, the fastest and most effective way for the North to help stem livestock biodiversity losses is to assist developing nations in establishing capacity to save their endangered native breeds. It is not good enough for Southern countries to depend on the North to be custodians of their livestock genetic material. The greatest livestock diversity remaining in the world is in the South and Northern countries are not highly interested in these breeds.

10.   Are rare breeds going to end up being preserved by hobbyists or organic enthusiasts?

In the developed world, there are examples of livestock breeds being preserved by livestock hobbyists or enthusiasts. In the developing world, most livestock owners are poor and the number of breeds needing attention is too large to be addressed by a few rich farmers. Alternative and substantive actions are required.

11.   How important is livestock production to developing world development?

Worldwide, one billion people are involved in animal farming and domestic animals supply 30 per cent of total human requirements for food and agriculture. In developing countries, 70 per cent of the rural poor depend on livestock as an important part of their livelihoods and livestock account for some 30 per cent of agricultural gross domestic product, a figure expected to rise to 40 per cent by the year 2030. Currently, more than 600 million rural poor people rely on livestock for their livelihoods. (Sixty-three per cent of the developing world’s total population live in rural areas, including 75 per cent of the 1.2 billion people trapped in extreme poverty; of these 900 million rural poor, some 70 per cent, or 630 million, raise livestock as part of their livelihoods.) The developing-world’s large and rapidly growing livestock markets make livestock production an income-generating opportunity similar to horticulture and other high-value agricultural commodities. The advantage of the livestock markets is that they are largely domestic and thus require no export infrastructure. Finally, livestock is what poor farmers know how to produce, and they have access to feed and other resources to produce it competitively.

12.   Does livestock production still offer a pathway out of poverty?
Yes. The growing livestock markets and expanding post-production value addition are providing jobs and incomes at many levels. Increasing animal production also of course keeps down critical food prices for the urban poor.

13.   Is another answer to simply scale back the use of livestock in general by reducing demand in the developed world while stopping demand before it starts in developing countries?
The livestock revolution is demand-driven. As consumers become more urbanized and their incomes grow, as they have in much of Asia and Latin America, their demand for animal products grows markedly. We expect that the developing world will double their consumption of animal products in the next 20 years. Livestock production growth to meet the growing market demand has to rely on the same or shrinking land, water and other natural resources. What we need are dramatic productivity increases. Policies will play a key role in shaping what happens in different parts of the world. If polices enforce more environmentally neutral production systems, this could lead to higher prices, particularly in the developed countries, which use intensive systems heavily reliant on external inputs and energy.

14.    How will the ‘supermarket revolution’ take hold in the developing world and what impact this will have on livestock production?
Supermarkets will impose stringent requirements on production of crops and livestock foods, particularly in terms of homogeneous large volumes and food safety conditions. This can make it increasingly difficult for smallholders to participate in these modern commodity chains. Important developments in terms of organizing smallholders for collective action are critical and are being established by agribusinesses and non-governmental organizations (e.g. contract-farming, vertical integration, cooperatives). Large-scale production units will continue to grow and can be developed in pro-poor ways by maximizing employment in poor areas that have resources suitable for animal production. For example, large-scale dairy or feedlot operations may contract forage production to small-scale farmers.

15.   Is the goal of saving diversity simply to boost the potential of alternatives to industrial animal husbandry, such as crop-livestock systems?
No, it is to provide options for the world. Even industrial systems will need animal genetic resources if significant shocks to the system happen, e.g. ban on antibiotics, climate change causing higher temperatures in certain regions and the spread of diseases from the tropics to the temperate world.

16.   Why is it important to boost crop-livestock systems?
Boosting crop-livestock production is the best way to sustain agricultural systems in large parts of the developing world. There are big inefficiencies in these systems that can be addressed with technology, better training and knowledge sharing.

17.   How far along with ‘landscape-livestock genomics’ are you? Is there even the beginnings of a map? When do you expect such a thing might be available?
The aim of landscape genomics is to learn from the co-evolution of livestock and their production systems and use the knowledge gained to better match different breeds with production circumstances. The approach employs molecular genetic tools to understand the genetic composition of livestock at the population level, using specified genetic regions (‘signatures of selection’) that appear targeted by key influencing factors in that environment. By overlaying this information with other sets of information such as agro-ecological maps, one can see what genetic material are candidates for use in which parts of the globe.
Where are we today? Independent of the genomics work, much progress is being made in modelling and mapping livestock systems, including how they are evolving in response to climate change. Development of tools for rapidly mapping genetic composition of populations is also advancing. Over the next 5 years, we plan to have made significant advances in this area and to have applied landscape genomics (even at a pilot scale) in the humid zone of West Africa, focusing on cattle populations.

18.  What do you hope to do next?
Urgent actions include:

  • With FAO and other collaborators, sensitize the global community about the value of conserving livestock genetic resources and mobilize greater support for saving the remaining livestock diversity in the developing world.
  • Focus on breeds already at risk, especially those in the FAO ‘critical list’.
  • Establish gene banks: Ex situ conservation (in gene banks) is seen as the fastest way to save some of these breeds, even if characterization information is inadequate or absent – a special session at the global conference in Interlaken (Switzerland) on 3 September 2007 discussed strategies to move this forward.
  • Facilitate the sharing of genetic material among developing countries, especially where there is evidence that a breed in one country holds promise for another, which will serve as long-term insurance against losses arising from droughts, civil conflicts, and other disasters.
  • Develop re-stocking strategies to ensure that appropriate breeds are used in the aftermath of disasters.
  • Develop pro-poor breeding strategies appropriate for low-input livestock production systems and infrastructure levels available in developing countries.
  • Identify factors that constrain competitiveness of indigenous breeds.

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