Resilient, disease-resistant, 'ancient' cattle are among the African breeds at risk of extinction as imported animals supplant valuable, but less productive, native livestock on the continent.
Urgent action is needed to stop the rapid and alarming loss of genetic diversity of livestock not only in Africa but also throughout the developing world, where a treasure-trove of drought- and disease-resistant animals still exists, according to a presentation made today at a key event in the Australasian region held to mark the UN International Year of Biodiversity.
Drs Okeyo Mwai and Gabrielle Persley, from the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), in Kenya, warned that investments are needed now to expand efforts to identify and preserve the unique traits of Africa’s rich array of livestock developed over several millennia but now under siege. In a joint paper, they said the loss of livestock diversity in Africa is part of a global 'livestock meltdown'.
Drs Mwai and Persley joined other biodiversity conservation specialists and advocates at the Crawford Fund’s 2010 international conference, “Biodiversity and World Food Security: Nourishing the Planet and Its People,” being held in Parliament House, Canberra, over 30 August to 1 September.
“In the industrialized world”, said Dr Mwai, a leader of ILRI's breeding projects, “just six tightly defined breeds already account for 90 percent of all cattle. A 2007 report by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) showed that over-reliance on a small number of livestock breeds is resulting in the loss of around one breed every month. FAO also report that some 20 percent of the world's 7616 livestock breeds are now viewed as at risk.”
He also noted that in Vietnam, the proportion of indigenous sows dropped from 72 percent in 1994 to just 26 percent 8 years later. In some countries, chicken populations have changed practically overnight from genetic mixtures of backyard fowl to selected uniform stocks raised under intensive conditions.
“From Africa to Asia, farmers are increasingly choosing the breeds that will produce more milk, meat and eggs to feed their hungry families and raise their incomes. But we cannot afford to lose altogether breeds that possess genetic attributes that may be critical for coping with increasing threats such as climate change and emerging pests and diseases,” he said.
Dr Mwai described a variety of pressures threatening the long-term viability of livestock production in Africa and globally, including rangeland degradation and cross-breeding hardy native stock with “exotic” breeds imported from Europe, Asia and the America.
“We need to link local, national and international resources and conserve livestock genetic diversity through dedicated livestock genebanks”, he said. “International livestock genebanks should store frozen cells, semen and DNA of endangered livestock from across the world. It is these genes that will help us feed humanity and cope with unforeseen crises.”
Australian Dr Gabrielle Persley warned that Australian livestock producers are likely to lose many benefits in improved production and disease resistance if Africa’s indigenous genetic resources are lost.She explained that livestock genebank collections must be accompanied by comprehensive descriptions of the animals, the populations from which they were obtained, and the environments and local practices under which they were raised.
“The necessary technology is already available,” Dr Persley said. “Cryopreservation has been used for years to aid both human and animal reproduction. What’s lacking is a strong policy framework for widespread use of the available technologies to preserve livestock genetic diversity.”
She stressed that documenting and conserving the diversity of the world’s remaining cattle, goat, sheep, swine and poultry populations is at least as essential as the maintenance of crop diversity for ensuring future food supplies in the face of health and environmental threats.
“Just as we should know which crop varieties are most tolerant to flooding or disease,” she said, “we should know which types of chicken can survive avian flu.”
But while crop genes are being stored in thousands of collections across the world and a fail-safe genebank is buried in the Arctic permafrost, she argued, “no comparable effort exists to conserve livestock genes”.
Other speakers at this year’s Crawford Fund annual event include:
- Dr Cristián Samper, Director of the world’s largest and most visited natural history collection, the National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution;
- Professor Steve Hopper, an internationally recognised Australian plant conservation biologist who is Director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, arguably the planet’s most famous garden;
- Dr Emile Frison, Director General, Bioversity International, the largest international research organisation dedicated to the conservation and use of agricultural biodiversity;
- Professor Hugh Possingham, member of the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists and Director of the Ecology Centre at the University of Queensland
- Dr Megan Clark, Chief Executive, CSIRO.
Speakers from Australia, Asia and Africa will also be addressing biodiversity issues in relation to the fields of fisheries, forestry, microbials, biosecurity, genetically modified organisms and human health.