New film makes a case for conserving East Africa’s elegant long-horned Ankole cattle

The genetic diversity of African livestock is increasingly under threat as indigenous livestock varieties are cross-bred, or slowly replaced, with exotic breeds that produce more milk and meat. Exotic livestock varieties are, however, less resistant to African environmental and climatic challenges and are also less resistant to endemic diseases like trypanosomosis (called ‘sleeping sickness’ in people).

The following 3-minute film highlights an initiative supported by the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) in Uganda that is working to conserve purebred Ankole cattle, a breed native in eastern Africa and relied upon by farmers in at least four countries.

In the film, Daniel Semambo, Director of Uganda’s National Animal Genetic Resources Centre and Data Bank, outlines the issues facing many developing countries as they try to improve their livestock productivity and at the same time they try to stem losses of their native livestock breeds and genes.

Les experts avertissent que la disparition rapide du bétail indigène de l’Afrique menace l’approvisionnement alimentaire du continent

N'DamaHerd_WestAfrica

D’ « anciennes » espèces bovines d’Afrique de l’Ouest, résistantes aux maladies, figurent parmi les races qui risquent de disparaître parce que le bétail importé est en train de supplanter un précieux cheptel indigène.

Une action urgente est indispensable pour arrêter la perte rapide et alarmante de la diversité génétique du bétail africain qui apporte nourriture et revenus à 70 % des Africains ruraux et constitue un véritable trésor d’animaux résistants à la sécheresse et aux maladies. C’est ce que dit une analyse présentée aujourd’hui à une importante réunion de scientifiques africains et d’experts du développement.

Les experts de l’Institut international de recherche sur l’élevage (ILRI) ont expliqué aux chercheurs réunis pour la cinquième Semaine africaine des sciences agricoles (www.faraweek.org), accueillie par le Forum pour la recherche agricole en Afrique (FARA), que des investissements sont indispensables aujourd’hui même pour intensifier, en particulier en Afrique de l’Ouest, les efforts d’identification et de préservation des caractères uniques de la riche variété de bétail bovin, ovin, caprin, et porcin, qui s’est développée au long de plusieurs millénaires sur le continent et qui est aujourd’hui menacée. Ces experts expliquent que la perte de la diversité du bétail en Afrique fait partie de « l’effondrement » mondiale du cheptel. Selon l’Organisation des Nations Unies pour l’alimentation et l’agriculture, près de 20 % des 7 616 races de bétail existant dans le monde sont aujourd’hui considérées comme à risque.

« L’élevage africain est un des plus robustes au monde, et pourtant nous assistons aujourd’hui à une dilution, si pas une perte totale, de la diversité génétique de nombreuses races, » dit Abdou Fall, chef du projet diversité animale de l’ILRI pour l’Afrique de l’Ouest. « Mais aujourd’hui, nous avons les outils nécessaires pour identifier les caractéres de grande valeur du bétail africain indigène, une information qui peut être cruciale pour maintenir, voire augmenter la productivité de l’exploitation agricole africaine. »

M. Fall décrit les différentes menaces qui pèsent sur la viabilité à long terme de la production de bétail en Afrique. Ces menaces comprennent une dégradation du paysage et le croissement avec des races « exotiques » importées d’Europe, d’Asie et d’Amérique.

Par exemple, on assiste à un croisement sur une très large échelle de races des zones sahéliennes d’Afrique de l’Ouest et susceptibles aux maladies avec des races adaptées aux régions subhumides, comme le sud du Mali, et qui ont une résistance naturelle à la trypanosomiase.

La trypanosomiase tue entre trois et sept millions de tètes de bétail chaque année et son coût pour les exploitants agricoles se chiffre en milliards de dollars, lorsqu’on prend en compte, par exemple, les pertes de production de lait et de viande, et les coûts de médicaments et prophylactiques nécessaires au traitement ou à la prévention des maladies. Bien que le croisement puisse offrir des avantages à court terme, comme une amélioration de la production de viande et de lait ou une plus grande puissance de trait, il peut également faire disparaître des caractères très précieux qui sont le résultat de milliers d’années de sélection naturelle.

Les experts de l’ILRI déploient à l’heure actuelle des efforts importants en faveur d’une campagne visant à maîtriser le développement d’une résistance aux médicaments chez les parasites qui provoquent la trypanosomiase. Mais ils reconnaissent aussi que des races dotées d’une résistance naturelle à cette maladie offre une meilleure solution à long terme.

Ces races comprennent les bovins sans bosse et à courtes cornes de l’Afrique de l’Ouest et du Centre, qui ont vécu dans cette région avec ces parasites pendant des millions d’années et ont ainsi acquis une résistance naturelle à de nombreuses maladies, y compris la trypanosomiase, propagée par la mouche tsétsé, et les maladies transmises par les tiques. De plus, ces animaux robustes sont capables de résister à des climats rudes. Mais les races à courtes cornes et à longues cornes ont un désavantage : elles ne sont pas aussi productives que les races européennes. Malgré ce désavantage, la disparition de ces races aurait des conséquences graves pour la productivité future du bétail africain.

« Nous avons observé que les races indigènes sans bosse et à courtes cornes d’Afrique de l’Ouest et du Centre font l’objet d’un abatage aveugle et d’un manque d’attention aux bonne pratique d’élevage, et risquent ainsi de disparaître,» explique Fall. « Il faut qu’au minimum nous préservions ces races soit dans le contexte de l’exploitation, soit dans des banques de gènes : leurs caractéristiques génétiques pourraient en effet s’avérer décisives dans la lutte contre le trypanosomiase, et leur robustesse pourrait être un atout essentiel pour des exploitants agricoles qui auront à s’adapter au changement climatique. »

Le Kuri aux grandes cornes bulbeuses du Sud Tchad et du Nord-est du Nigéria fait partie des bovins africains à risques. Non seulement il ne se laisse pas déranger par les piqûres d’insecte mais il est également un excellent nageur, vu qu’il s’est développé dans la région du lac Tchad, et est idéalement adapté aux conditions humides dans des climats très chauds.

Les actions de l’ILRI en faveur de la préservation du bétail africain indigène s’inscrivent dans un effort plus large visant à améliorer la productivité de l’exploitation agricole africaine au travers de ce qu’on appelle la « génomique du paysage ». Cette dernière implique entre autre chose, le séquençage des génomes de différentes variétés de bétail provenant de plusieurs régions, et la recherche des signatures génétiques associées à leur adaptation à un environnement particulier.

Les experts de l’ILRI considèrent la génomique du paysage comme étant particulièrement importante vu l’accélération du changement climatique qui impose à l’éleveur de répondre toujours plus rapidement et avec l’expertise voulue à l’évolution des conditions de terrain. Mais ils soulignent qu’en Afrique en particulier, la capacité des éleveurs à s’adapter aux nouveaux climats va dépendre directement de la richesse du continent en termes de diversité de son cheptel indigène.

« Nous assistons trop souvent à des efforts qui visent à améliorer la productivité du bétail dans la ferme africaine en supplantant le cheptel indigène par des animaux importés qui à long terme s’avéreront mal adaptés aux conditions locales et vont demander un niveau d’attention simplement trop onéreux pour la plus part des petits exploitants agricoles, » dit Carlos Seré, Directeur général de l’ILRI. « Les communautés d’éleveurs marginalisées ont avant tout besoin d’investissement en génétique et en génomique qui leur permettront d’accroitre la productivité de leur cheptel africain, car ce dernier reste le mieux adapté à leurs environnements. »

M. Seré souligne la nécessité de nouvelles politiques qui encouragent les éleveurs et les petits exploitants agricoles africains à conserver les races locales plutôt que de les remplacer des animaux importés. Ces politiques, dit-il, devraient comprendre des programmes d’élevage centrés sur la l’amélioration de la productivité du cheptel indigène comme alternative à l’importation d’animaux.

Steve Kemp, qui dirige l’équipe de génétique et de génomique de l’ILRI, ajoute que les mesures de conservation en exploitation doivent également s’accompagner d’investissements en faveur de la préservation de la diversité qui permettront de geler le sperme et les embryons. On ne peut en effet exiger du seul exploitant agricole qu’il renonce à une augmentation de la productivité au nom de la conservation de la diversité.

« Nous ne pouvons pas attendre de l’exploitant qu’il sacrifie son revenu avec pour seul objectif de préserver le potentiel de diversité, » explique M. Kemp. « Nous savons que la diversité est essentielle pour relever les défis auxquels l’exploitant africain est confronté, mais les caractéres de grande valeur qui seront importants pour l’avenir ne sont pas toujours évidents dans l’immédiat. »

M. Kemp recommande une nouvelle approche pour mesurer les ressources génétiques du cheptel. Aujourd’hui, dit-il, l’estimation de ces caractéristiques porte essentiellement sur des éléments tels que la valeur de la viande, du lait, des œufs et de la laine, mais elle ne prend pas en compte d’autres attributs qui pourraient avoir une importance égale, voire supérieure, pour l’éleveur, qu’il soit en Afrique ou dans une autre région en développement. Ces attributs comprennent la capacité d’un animal à tirer la charrue, à fournir de l’engrais, à faire office de banque ou compte d’épargne ambulant, et d’être une forme efficace d’assurance contre les pertes de récolte.

Mais l’association de ces multiples attributs avec l’ADN d’un animal exige de nouveaux moyens pour rechercher et comprendre les caractéristiques du cheptel dans une région caractérisée par une grande diversité et une grande variété d’environnements.

« On dispose aujourd’hui des outils nécessaires, mais nous avons besoin de la volonté, de l’imagination et des ressources avant qu’il ne soit trop tard, » indique M. Kemp.
 

Experts warn rapid losses of Africa’s native livestock threaten continent’s food supply

N'DamaHerd_WestAfrica

Resilient disease-resistant, 'ancient' West African cattle, such as these humpless longhorn N'Dama cattle, are among breeds at risk of extinction in Africa as imported animals supplant valuable native livestock

Urgent action is needed to stop the rapid and alarming loss of genetic diversity of African livestock that provide food and income to 70 percent of rural Africans and include a treasure-trove of drought- and disease-resistant animals, according to a new analysis presented today at a major gathering of African scientists and development experts.

Experts from the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) told researchers at the 5th African Agriculture Science Week (www.faraweek.org), hosted by the Forum for Agricultural Research in Africa (FARA), that investments are needed now to expand efforts to identify and preserve the unique traits, particularly in West Africa, of the continent's rich array of cattle, sheep, goats and pigs developed over several millennia but now under siege. They said the loss of livestock diversity in Africa is part of a global 'livestock meltdown'. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, some 20 percent of the world's 7616 livestock breeds are now viewed as at risk.

'Africa's livestock are among the most resilient in the world yet we are seeing the genetic diversity of many breeds being either diluted or lost entirely', said Abdou Fall, leader of ILRI's livestock diversity project for West Africa. 'But today we have the tools available to identify valuable traits in indigenous African livestock, information that can be crucial to maintaining and increasing productivity on African farms.'

Fall described a variety of pressures threatening the long-term viability of livestock production in Africa. These forces include landscape degradation and cross-breeding with 'exotic' breeds imported from Europe, Asia and the America.

For example, disease-susceptible breeds from West Africa's Sahel zone are being cross-bred in large scale with breeds adapted to sub-humid regions, like southern Mali, that have a natural resistance to trypanosomosis.

Trypanosomosis kills an estimated three to seven million cattle each year and costs farmers billions of dollars each year in, for example, lost milk and meat production and the costs of medicines and prophylactics needed to treat or prevent the disease. While cross-breeding may offer short-term benefits, such as improved meat and milk production and greater draft power, it could also cause the disappearance of valuable traits developed over thousands of years of natural selection.

ILRI specialists are in the midst of a major campaign to control development of drug resistance in the parasites that cause this disease but also have recognized that breeds endowed with a natural ability to survive the illness could offer a better long-term solution.

The breeds include humpless shorthorn and longhorn cattle of West and Central Africa that have evolved in this region along with its parasites for thousands of years and therefore have evolved ways to survive many diseases, including trypanosomosis, which is spread by tsetse flies, and also tick-borne diseases. Moreover, these hardy animals have the ability to withstand harsh climates. Despite their drawbacks—the shorthorn and longhorn breeds are not as productive as their European counterparts—their loss would be a major blow to the future of African livestock productivity.

'We have seen in the short-horn humpless breeds native to West and Central African indiscriminate slaughter and an inattention to careful breeding that has put them on a path to extinction', Fall said . 'We must at the very least preserve these breeds either on the farm or in livestock genebanks because their genetic traits could be decisive in the fight against trypanosomosis, while their hardiness could be enormously valuable to farmers trying to adapt to climate change.'

Other African cattle breeds at risk include the Kuri cattle of southern Chad and northeastern Nigeria. The large bulbous-horned Kuri, in addition to being unfazed by insect bites, are excellent swimmers, having evolved in the Lake Chad region, and are ideally suited to wet conditions in very hot climates.

ILRI's push to preserve Africa's indigenous livestock is part of a broader effort to improve productivity on African farms through what is known as 'landscape genomics'. Landscape genomics involves, among other things, sequencing the genomes of different livestock varieties from many regions and looking for the genetic signatures associated with their suitability to a particular environment.

ILRI experts see landscape genomics as particularly important as climate change accelerates, requiring animal breeders to respond every more quickly and expertly to shifting conditions on the ground. But they caution that in Africa in particular the ability of farmers and herders to adapt to new climates depends directly on the continent's wealth of native livestock diversity.

'What we see too often is an effort to improve livestock productivity on African farms by supplanting indigenous breeds with imported animals that over the long-term will prove a poor match for local conditions and require a level of attention that is simply too costly for most smallholder farmers', said Carlos Seré, ILRI's Director General. 'What marginalized livestock-keeping communities need are investments in genetics and genomics that allow them to boost productivity with their African animals, which are best suited to their environments.'

Seré said new polices also are needed that encourage African pastoralist herders and smallholder farmers to continue maintaining their local breeds rather than abandoning them for imported animals. Such policies, he said, should include breeding programs that focus on improving the productivity of indigenous livestock as an alternative to importing animals.

Steve Kemp, who heads ILRI's genetics and genomics team, added that in addition to conservation on the farm, there must also be investments in preserving diversity by freezing sperm and embryos because farmers cannot be asked to forgo productivity increases solely in the name of diversity conservation.

'We cannot expect farmers to sacrifice their income just to preserve the future potential of diversity', Kemp said. 'We know that diversity is critical to dealing with the challenges that confront African farmers, but the valuable traits that may be important in the future are not always immediately obvious.'

Kemp called for a new approach to measuring the characteristics of livestock genetic resources. Today, he said, these estimates focus mainly on such things as the value of meat, milk, eggs and wool and do not include qualities that can be of equal or even greater importance to livestock keepers in Africa and other developing regions. These attributes include the ability of an animal to pull a plough, provide fertilizer, serve as a walking bank or savings account, and act as an effective form of insurance against crop loss.

But associating this wider array of attributes with an animal's DNA requires new ways of exploring and understanding livestock characteristics in a region where there is so much diversity in so many different environments.

'The tools are available to do this now, but we need the will, the imagination and the resources before it is too late', Kemp said.

New project to reduce chicken disease in Ethiopia

Chicken on LUO RU BIN's farm

A new study of genetic resistance to disease in Ethiopia’s indigenous chicken breeds is scheduled to start later this year. In collaboration with the Ethiopian Institute for Agricultural Research, the University of Liverpool, Roslin Institute, the Univerisity of Edinburgh and the University of Nottingham, researchers from the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) will seek to identify ‘the causes of infectious diseases that have a major impact on poultry production in Ethiopia.’

Scheduled to start in September 2010, the study will take place in the district of Jarso, in eastern Ethiopia, and in Horro, in the west of the country. The results of this research will be linked to an ongoing poultry breeding program to improve resistance to ‘priority infectious diseases’ and thereby enhance the productivity of the country’s poultry sector.

Poultry play important economic, nutritional and socio-cultural roles in the livelihoods of poor rural households in Ethiopia and many other developing countries, where birds are widely integrated into smallholder production systems and help households cope with hunger and poverty.

Buying and rearing poultry is often a first step out of poverty. Women tend to own and manage chickens, usually native chicken varieties, which provide them with their only independent source of cash income.

Although breeding programs for local chickens have shown that rapid improvement in productivity is possible, researchers have yet to identify and select the optimal breeds for improving, by, for example, providing resistance to common infectious diseases.

Tadelle Dessie, a team leader of ILRI’s biotechnology theme in Ethiopia, and one of the leaders of the chicken project, says ‘enhanced genetic resistance through selective breeding is still an under-exploited low-cost opportunity for disease control in low-input poultry production systems’. He says the study will investigate genetic variability in the resistance of local chicken ecotypes to major infectious diseases hurting village poultry production in Ethiopia. Results of the research will inform strategies for improving both disease resistance and productivity.

Indigenous chicken varieties are well adapted to local environments, but local birds tend to grow slowly and produce fewer and smaller eggs than commercial varieties. Infectious diseases, however, can wipe out flocks of exotic, higher-producing, poultry.

Knowledge from this study should enable Ethiopian policymakers and animal health professionals to design more precise disease-control plans. The study itself should help improve Ethiopia’s scientific capacity in this field by training local scientists and enhancing laboratory facilities for poultry testing.

Staff are now being recruited for the project, which will be launched in September.

A frozen zoo in Nottingham ‘bio-banks’ wildlife threatened with extinction

HanotteOlivier_08APM

We thought it appropriate in this United Nations ‘International Year of Biodiversity’ to highlight not only work by the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) and its partners (see ‘Livestock Diversity Needs Genebanks Too’, an opinion piece by ILRI Director General Carlos Seré published on the SciDevNet website on 21 May 2010) to conserve breeds and genes of native livestock that are rapidly disappearing, but also those of wild animals similarly threatened.

The Frozen Ark is such an initiative. It is led by Olivier Hanotte, an animal geneticist who spent many years at ILRI working to conserve livestock genetic resources indigenous in developing countries. These days Hanotte is running The Frozen Ark Consortium, a worldwide group of institutions coordinated from an office within a Frozen Ark Unit at the School of Biology at the University of Nottingham in the United Kingdom: Frozen.Ark@nottingham.ac.uk

The aim of the Frozen Ark is to preserve, for hundreds if not thousands of years, critical information about the species collected. As their website explains: ‘Despite the best efforts of conservationists, thousands of extinctions have occurred before the animals could be rescued. There has not been enough knowledge or money to stem the tide. This pattern is being repeated across all animal groups and emphasises the importance of collecting the DNA and cells of endangered animals before they go extinct. The loss of a species destroys the results of millions of years of evolution. If the cells and DNA are preserved, a very great deal of information about the species is saved. . . . For animals endangered but not yet extinct, the stored DNA and cells can also provide renewable resources of variation for revitalising captive breeding populations when the loss of variation through inbreeding threatens their survival.’

What has caught the public’s imagination is the possibility—a possibility ever more credible in light of ongoing, transformative, breakthroughs in molecular biology, particularly genetics and genomics, as well as drastic falls in the cost of sequencing genomes—that in future scientists will be able to reconstruct extinct animals from such preserved material.

‘While the reconstruction of extinct species from frozen material is not yet practicable, the possibility is not remote,’ says Hanotte. ‘If we fail to preserve the DNA and cells, the information and the possibilities will be lost forever. If DNA is stored in liquid nitrogen at -196 degrees Centigrade, it should survive intact for many hundreds, and possibly thousands, of years.’

The International Union of the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List distinguishes more than 16,000 animal species that are under threat. The Fozen Ark aims eventually to collect the DNA of all these species, and the viable cells (somatic cells, eggs, embryos and sperm) of as many as possible, over the next 50 years. But Hanotte is quick to point out that the Frozen Ark Project is not a substitute for conserving the world’s diverse wildlife species, but is rather ‘a practical and timely backup of their genetic material.’

For more information, visit the Frozen Ark Website.

And watch the online version of this week’s broadcast (30 Mar 2010) of the American television program ’60 Minutes’, which explores the possibility of Resurrecting the Extinct from frozen samples.

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 SciDev.net 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.

Women scientist leading national project to conserve Vietnam’s native livestock breeds wins prestigious Kovalepskaia Award

Prof Dr Le Thi Thuy Prof Dr Le Thi Thuy, Director of the Department of Science and International Cooperation of Vietnam’s National Institute of Animal Husbandry, has been awarded the 2009 Kovalepskaia Award in recognition of her role as a woman scientist working on conservation of indigenous livestock breeds. The award is named after Sophia Kovalepskaia, an eminent 19th-century Russian mathematician. Thuy is serving as the national project director in Vietnam of a multi-national project scientists are leading at the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) to help conserve the indigenous farm animal genetic resources of Asia. This project is funded by the Global Environment Facility. The Alexander Von Humboldt Foundation of Germany bestows a bi-annual Sofia Kovalevskaya Award to promising young researchers from all fields. From Wikipedia: Sofia Kovalevskaya, 1850–1891, was the first major Russian female mathematician, responsible for important original contributions to analysis, differential equations and mechanics, and the first woman appointed to a full professorship in Northern Europe. Despite her obvious talent for mathematics, she could not complete her education in Russia. At that time, women there were not allowed to attend the universities. To study abroad, she needed written permission from her father (or husband). Accordingly, she contracted a "fictitious marriage" with Vladimir Kovalevsky, then a young paleontology student who would later become famous for his collaborations with Charles Darwin. They emigrated from Russia in 1867. In 1869, Kovalevskaya began attending the University of Heidelberg, Germany, which allowed her to audit classes as long as the professors involved gave their approval. Shortly after beginning her studies there, she visited London with Vladimir, who spent time with his colleagues Thomas Huxley and Charles Darwin, while she was invited to attend George Eliot's Sunday salons. There, at age nineteen, she met Herbert Spencer and was led into a debate, at Eliot's instigation, on ‘woman's capacity for abstract thought’. This was well before she made her notable contribution of the ‘Kovalevsky top’ to the brief list of known examples of integrable rigid body motion. After two years of mathematical studies at Heidelberg, she moved to Berlin, where she had to take private lessons, as the university would not even allow her to audit classes. In 1874 she presented three papers—on partial differential equations, on the dynamics of Saturn's rings and on elliptic integrals—to the University of Göttingen as her doctoral dissertation. This earned her a doctorate in mathematics summa cum laude, bypassing the usual required lectures and examinations. She thereby became the first woman in Europe to hold that degree. Her paper on partial differential equations contains what is now commonly known as the Cauchy-Kovalevski theorem, which gives conditions for the existence of solutions to a certain class of those equations. In 1889 she was appointed Professorial Chair holder at Stockholm University, the first woman to hold such a position at a northern European university. After much lobbying on her behalf (and a change in the Academy's rules), she was granted a Chair in the Russian Academy of Sciences, but was never offered a professorship in Russia. Kovalevskaya died of influenza in 1891 at age forty-one. Sofja Kowalewskaja

Award-winning ILRI geneticist takes up prestigious UK appointment

After 13 years with ILRI, geneticist Oliver Hanotte is taking up a new appointment at the University of Nottingham.
ILRI geneticist Olivier Hanotte starts his new position as professor of population genetics and conservation at the University of Nottingham, UK on 1st January. He will also be the director of a charity based at the university called Frozen Ark. The charity is concerned with the ex situ conservation of endangered animals, including wildlife as well as livestock.

Hanotte joined ILRI in 1995 when the Nairobi-based International Laboratory for Research on Animal Diseases (ILRAD) merged with the Addis Ababa-based International Livestock Centre for Africa (ILCA). Since then ILRI has shifted from a predominantly African focus to a global focus, with ILRI offices not only in East, West and Southern Africa but also in South Asia and South East Asia, providing new opportunities for Hanotte’s research focus.

Research highlights
In his 13 years at ILRI, animal geneticist Olivier Hanotte has worked to unravel the diversity of developing-world livestock using the latest molecular technologies of DNA sequencing and genotyping.

ILRI deputy director general – research, John McDermott, says ‘In 1995, when Hanotte began his work at ILRI, we knew that the world’s livestock diversity was shrinking fast, but no one knew exactly what was being lost and where we should target conservation efforts. Africa and Asia’s genetic diversity was largely unknown and unmapped.

‘We now have a much better picture of the livestock diversity hotspots in Africa and Asia and where the world needs to focus its conservation and genetic improvement efforts. This is due in large part to Hanotte’s scientific leadership, commitment to scientific excellence, innovative partnerships and capacity building activities across two continents’ says McDermott.

In 2003, Hanotte became leader of ILRI’s project on Improving Animal Genetic Resources Characterization. He has supervised project members working in Nairobi, Addis Ababa and, since 2005, in Beijing at a joint laboratory established with the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Science on livestock and forage genetic resources. He has established long term collaborations with several research institutes such as Trinity College at the University of Dublin (Ireland), Rural Development Agency, RDA (South Korea) and the joint FAO-IAEA division in Seibersdorf and Vienna (Austria).

Seminal work by Hanotte and his team has disclosed the origin and distribution of genetic diversity of livestock species including cattle, sheep, goat, yak and chicken in Africa and Asia. These findings are now providing a rationale for targeted conservation and utilization programs for developing-country livestock breeds at risk of extinction. This work also gives us a glimpse into the distant past of the peoples and civilizations of Africa and Asia.

Hanotte’s research has been published in leading scientific journals, including Science, PNAS, Animal Genetics and Molecular Ecology. He has produced over 80 scientific publications and received several international awards, including the CGIAR Science Award in 2003 for Outstanding Scientific Article. He has also supervised and co-supervised research projects of over 50 students and scientists.

Hanotte and colleagues at ILRI continue to break new ground. Current work includes research to better understand and characterize the adaptive traits of indigenous livestock to their local production environments, specifically the genetic and adaptive mechanisms for resistance and tolerance to infection and disease. Research includes tolerance of trypanosome infections in ruminants, resistance to gastro-intestinal worms in sheep and resistance to avian viral infection in poultry. Their work supports the new field of ‘livestock landscape genomics’, which has the long-term and ambitious aim of exploiting advances in the genomics and information revolutions to reliably match breeds to environments and sustainably increase livestock productivity.

Recognized as a leading expert in livestock diversity, Hanotte was invited to write the opening chapter, on the Origin and History of Livestock Diversity, for a major FAO-led study, ‘The State of the World’s Animal Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture’, released at a Swiss conference in September 2007. He serves on the editorial boards of two major livestock journals (Animal Genetics and the Journal of Animal Breeding and Genetics), and as a regular scientific referee for major scientific journals. His group collaborate with ILRI’s sister CGIAR institution ICARDA in the characterization of the genetic resources of small ruminants.

Hanotte says, ‘I’m very much looking forward to my new position, but leaving ILRI is bittersweet. I have spent the greater part of professional life here in Kenya. I will greatly miss my colleagues and the rich culture of Africa. But I also know that there will be opportunities for collaborations in the future’

‘When you are studying or working in the North, you can get distorted information about Africa and Asia. And you can become removed from the realities. One of the big advantages of working with ILRI is that you’re based in a developing country. That means you’re never too far away from the people that you’re working for. ILRI is an open door to African and Asian farming societies and cultures’

Contacts:

Olivier Hanotte
Professor of Population and Conservation Genetics /Director of theFrozen Ark
School of Biology
University of Nottingham
Nottingham
NG7 2RD, United Kingdom
email:
olivier.hanotte@nottingham.ac.uk

John McDermott
Deputy Director General – Research
International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI)
Nairobi, Kenya
Email:
j.mcdermott@cgiar.org

Further information:
Olivier Hanotte’s recent published research on BioInfoBank: http://lib.bioinfo.pl/auth:Hanotte,O
Overview of ILRI research on Improving Animal Genetic Resources Characterization
The State of the World’s Animal Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture
Frozen Ark website http://www.frozenark.org/

Do you want your research to make a greater difference?
View research opportunities with ILRI

Research paper casts doubt on claims for pre-Colombian Chilean chickens

But ancient chicken DNA obtained from Easter Island may represent a genetic signature of an early Polynesian dispersal of chickens.
 

pre-Colombian Chilean chickensDid some native Amerindian breeds of chicken pre-date the arrival in the Americas of European chickens with the Spanish in the 15th century?

Many would like to think so. Such evidence is used to support ancient trading contact between Polynesian and South American Indians. Some have passionately argued the case for pre-Colombian chickens, citing in particular the unusual Chilean Araucana and Passion Fowl breeds.

The Araucana breed, for example, thought to be descended from indigenous Amerindian chickens, lays blue/green-shelled eggs and has distinctive plumage. Because features of its plumage are also found among Asian rather than Mediterranean chickens, it’s been hypothesized that the Araucana breed might have an Asian origin. A similar origin has been posited for Chile’s Passion Fowl. It is thought by some that these historic Chilean breeds could have arrived with early Polynesian or Dutch traders on the Pacific Coast of South America.

But a recent scientific paper published in the prestigious USA Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (29 July 2008) says that molecular evidence counters such an early introduction via Polynesia. Results of this research investigation into the putative ancient Polynesian lineage of Chile’s native chickens indicate an Indo-European genetic origin. This paper has generated a lively debate that is still on-going. (See, for example, the subsequent Letter to the Editor of PNAS from Storey.)
Other recent research suggests that there were multiple centres of origin for the domestication of the chicken across both Southeast Asia and the Indian sub-continent. The high genetic similarity between European and Indian sub-continent  mitochondrial DNA sequences suggests that the latter was the main source for chickens introduced into Europe.

pre-Colombian Chilean chickensThis molecular evolutionary genetic analysis of the origin of Chile’s native chickens was carried out by scientists working in nine institutes across the globe. Animal geneticists and archaeologists at four universities in Australia (Sydney, Adelaide, Queensland and the Australian National University) worked with archaeologists from the University of Durham (UK), medical biochemists and microbiologists from Uppsala University (Sweden), geneticists from Pontificia Universidad Catolica de Chile (which extracted the DNA samples) and livestock geneticists working at the Nairobi-based International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) and a Beijing Joint Laboratory on Livestock and Forage Genetic Resources (JLLFGR) run jointly by ILRI and China’s Institute of Animal Sciences. ILRI and JLLFGR did the PCR and DNA sequencing work for this study. Researchers working in ILRI’s labs in Nairobi and Beijing are working to improve understanding of the diversity in backyard chicken populations and production systems so as to reduce chicken diseases and subsequent poverty in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia.

Interestingly, although this molecular evolutionary detective work provides no support for a pre-Colombian Polynesian introduction of chickens to South America, DNA sequences from ancient chicken remains obtained from two archaeological sites on Easter Island represent a genetic signature of an early Polynesian, rather than 15th century Spanish, introduction of chickens to the island.
Lying far off the coast of Chile and named by Dutch sailors who landed there on Easter Sunday in 1722, Easter Island is famous for the more than 800 iconic stone statues, called moai, of giant heads that dot its landscape. The ancient chicken specimens from Easter Island are clearly pre-European, indicating that they form part of an original ‘Polynesian/Pacific’ chicken dispersal possibly subsequently erased across the western Polynesian islands.

pre-Colombian Chilean chickensThe lineages of domestic plants and animals are often replaced by later introductions of the same domestic species with a different genetic heritage, thus erasing evidence of the initial dispersal. It is thus possible that the Indo-European chicken haplotypes found in Chile may have formed a more recent wave of dispersals, overwriting and removing earlier Indonesian sequences across western Polynesia but failing to do the same on distant Easter Island.

But at present, there is no evidence to support an ancient Asia Pacific route for the introduction of Indo-European chickens into Chile.


More research is needed to resolve the timing and nature of introductions, modern diversity and regional adaptation of local chicken breeds in South America, Easter Island and Southeast Asia. Of particular interest will be chickens kept by some indigenous communities in the Amazon forest, the origins of which remain a mystery.

‘The origin of South America’s first chickens remains debatable today,’ says Han Jianlin, an author of this paper, who heads the ILRI-Chinese Joint Lab in Beijing. ‘But I predict that we will have the definitive answer within the next five years. That’s how fast this molecular detective work is moving.’

pre-Colombian Chilean chickens

‘What is remarkable about this work,’ says Olivier Hanotte, another ILRI author of the paper, who leads an ILRI project to characterize indigenous animal genetic resources of the developing world, ‘is that it is allowing us to tackle major questions about human history that we would not have been able even to ask just 20 years ago.’

‘We didn’t set out in this research,’ says Hanotte, ‘to advance understanding of the history of the world’s farming societies. But that’s just where this research—conducted to characterize chicken genetic resources of and for the poor—has led us.~

Further Information Contact:
Olivier Hanotte
Molecular Biologist, ILRI
Nairobi, KENYA
Email: o.hanotte@cgiar.org
Telephone: +254 (20) 422 3000

OR

Han Jianlin
Scientist & Head, ILRI-Chinese Joint Lab in Beijing
Beijing, CHINA
Email: h.jianlin@cgiar.org

The time is now: Safeguarding livestock diversity

ILRI’s Annual Report: ‘The Time is Now: Safeguarding livestock diversity’ has just been released. The report on 2006 work focuses on how research is helping to characterize, use and conserve the world’s rapidly diminishing livestock genetic diversity.

The mission of the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) is to help people in developing countries move out of poverty. The challenge is to do so while conserving the natural resources on which the poor directly depend. Among the natural resources important to the world’s poor are the ‘living assets’ people accumulate in the form of their farm animals.

ILRI works with the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and many other partners to improve management of livestock genetic resources in developing countries. This year, FAO produced the world’s first inventory on animal genetic resources ‘The State of the World’s Animal Genetic Resources’, highlighting that many breeds of livestock are at risk of extinction, with the loss of an average of one livestock breed every month. The FAO report estimates that 70% of the entire world’s remaining unique livestock breeds are found in developing countries.

ILRI’s Director General Carlos Seré says: ‘Although our information on the world’s remaining livestock genetic resources is imperfect, experts agree that we need to take action now rather than wait for substantially better information to become available.

‘The accelerating threats to livestock diversity in recent years demand that we act now before a substantial proportion of those resources are lost to us forever. The time is now’, says Seré.

At a recent keynote address, the UN Under-Secretary General and Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), Achim Steiner, echoed these concerns and highlighted the implications of loss of the world’s animal genetic diversity:

‘I, like so many others, was shocked to read of the decline of genetic diversity in livestock outlined by ILRI and FAO in September (2007) at the First International Technical Conference on Animal Genetic Resources.

‘The increasing over-reliance on a handful of breeds such as Holstein-Friesian cows, White Leghorn chickens and fast-growing Large White pigs mirrors the trend in agricultural crops.

‘Mono-cultures, whether it be in agriculture or in the narrowing of human ingenuity and ideas, will not serve humanity well in a world of over six billion shortly moving to perhaps 10 billion.

‘(Mono-cultures) will not enhance stability and adaptation in a climatically challenged world’, concluded Steiner.

Download ILRI’s 2006 Annual Report: ‘The Time is Now: Safeguarding Livestock Diversity’: http://mahider.ilri.org/bitstream/10568/2479/1/AnnualRep2006_Safeguard.pdf

Related articles and resources on animal genetic resources

A ‘Livestock Meltdown’ Is Occurring As Hardy African, Asian, and Latin American Farm Animals Face Extinction: http://www.ilri.org/ilrinews/index.php/archives/550

FAQs about saving livestock genetic resources: http://www.ilri.org/ilrinews/index.php/archives/552

Films on animal genetic resources

• 3-minute film on conserving livestock for people

Livestock breeds that have helped people survive countless challenges throughout history are now dying out at an extraordinary rate. Globally, governments are discussing this problem, meanwhile this film sets out 4 approaches that can help now.

http://blip.tv/ilri/conserving-livestock-genetic-resources-for-people-summary-1369699

• 30-second film highlight on Sheko cattle

Sheko cattle come from Southern Ethiopia and there are only 2500 left in the world. They are adapted to withstand trypanosomosis, a disease that kills cattle and people.

http://blip.tv/ilri/three-endangered-african-livestock-breeds-1370212

• 30-second film highlight on Ankole cattle

Ankole cattle come from East Africa. These hardy, gentle, animals are threatened by expanding human populations and market demands. At current rates they will disappear in 50 years.

http://blip.tv/ilri/ankole-cattle-one-of-africa-s-disappearing-livestock-breeds-3982895

• 30-second film highlight on Red Maasai sheep

Red Maasai sheep come from East Africa and do not get sick when infected by intestinal worms. However, the numbers of pure Red Maasai sheep are declining.

http://blip.tv/ilri/three-endangered-african-livestock-breeds-1370212

The time is now

The world’s first Global Plan of Action for Animal Genetic Resources was agreed at a recent FAO conference in Switzerland from 3 to 7 September. While international negotiations continue, much can be done now, before it’s too late.
 

The First International Technical Conference on Animal Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, held in Interlaken in September, was a week-long series of negotiations organized by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and hosted by the Government of Switzerland to consider the current state of the world’s animal genetic resources and to reach international agreement on the best ways forward to protect these resources for long-term use. The conference opened with the launch of the world’s first report on the status of farm animal genetic resources, The State of the World’s Animal Genetic Resources. By the end of the conference, the world’s first Global Plan of Action for Animal Genetic Resources had been agreed by representatives from 109 countries. The global plan identifies four high-priority areas for animal genetic resources: characterization, inventory and monitoring of trends and risks, sustainable use and development, conservation and policies, institutions and capacity building.
Progress made at the Interlaken Conference includes:

  • Agreement on a global plan for identifying and conserving valuable livestock species
  • Agreement that livestock keepers rights are fundamental and need to be considered as part of an inclusive and equitable global plan
  • Agreement that incentives need to be provided to help the traditional custodians of indigenous animal genetic resources—usually small-scale livestock keepers—continue to keep their native breeds.

Overview of the Interlaken conference
On the first day of the conference, ILRI’s director general, Carlos Seré, presented a paper on ‘Dynamics of Livestock Production Systems, Drivers of Change and Prospects for Animal Genetic Resources’. He identified key drivers of change, how they were influencing current trends and future prospects, and their impacts on the management of animal genetic resources for food and agriculture.
Seré identified four drivers: economic development and globalization, changing market demands, environmental impacts and trends in science and technology. He described the trends in livestock production in industrial, crop-livestock and pastoral systems, emphasizing that while the trends are occurring in both developing and industrialized countries, the outcomes are different. In the developing world, some trends are reducing the ability of livestock keepers to improve their livelihoods, reduce their poverty and manage their natural resources. The industrial livestock production systems of developed countries have already greatly narrowed the livestock genepool, reducing our ability to deal with future uncertainties, such as climate change and zoonotic diseases.

Local breeds being crowded out
During the presentation, the ILRI director general cited replacement of indigenous tropical breeds with exotic animals as a key reason for the erosion of genetic diversity. Local breeds are estimated to be disappearing at the rate of one a month. This concern was echoed by the representative from the League for Pastoral Peoples and Endogenous Livestock Development. Ilse Köhler-Rollefson stated that policies relating to the introduction of exotic breeds and subsidies were helping large-scale production systems but hurting pastoralists.
Seré stressed that conserving our livestock genetic resources required appropriate institutional and policy frameworks and concerted international efforts. As these negotiations will take time, Seré proposed four complementary actions to improve the management of animal genetic resources and maintain our genetic options for the future. These are: provide incentives for in situ conservation of local breeds (‘keep it on the hoof’); facilitate movement of breeds within and between countries (‘move it or lose it’); match breeds to environments (‘livestock landscape genomics’); and establish genebanks (‘put some in the bank’).
These four strategies are practical steps that can help conserve indigenous tropical breeds. Seré cautioned that if actions are not taken now, it could be too late for some breeds that will soon be lost to the world forever.

Media help to raise awareness of ‘livestock meltdown’
There was extensive media coverage of the FAO Interlaken conference, with regional and international press and radio and local African TV all helping to raise awareness of the ‘livestock meltdown’ taking place.

Local livestock breeds at risk: Nature (3 September 2007) reported that indigenous animals are dying out as commercial breeds sweep the world.

‘Many of the world’s indigenous livestock breeds are in danger of dying out as commercial breeds take over, according to a worldwide inventory of animal diversity.
‘Their extinction would mean the loss of genetic resources that help animals overcome disease and drought, particularly in the developing world, say livestock experts.’

Read the full article at http://www.nature.com/news/2007/070903/full/070903-2.html (subscription required).

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.