Diversity in animal genetic resources invaluable for future developments

The consistent contribution over thousands of years of animal production to human needs under different environmental conditions as diverse as arctic and tropical, maritime and mountain, humid and arid semi-desert ecozones, stems from the development of some 4000-5000 breeds of different species. Of these, about 70% are found in the tropical developing world [DAD-IS; DAGRIS;]. They have been domesticated from about 40 wild animal species according to different needs and uses under the variable environments that have covered the world over time. The adaptation of different species and breeds to a broad range of environments provides the necessary variability that offers opportunities to meet the increased future demands for food and provide flexibility to respond to changed markets and needs [Breed information]. The role of AnGR and the need to conserve their diversity are articulated elsewhere (see Anderson, 2003; Rege and Gibson, 2003; Wollny, 2003).

Considerable genetic variation among breeds

The diversity among breeds is known to contribute about half of the genetic variation found among animals within species, while the other half is attributed to genetic variation within breeds. The variation within breeds is less vulnerable to loss, but breeds are easily irretrievably lost when they are considered to be commercially non-competitive. That is why the maintenance of local breeds is of great importance for the maintenance of genetic diversity [CS 1.17 by Drucker]; [CS 1.37 by Kharel et al.]. However, it may not be possible to maintain all breeds forever, especially if they are not competitive enough, all values considered. The definition of a breed is somewhat arbitrary and has, throughout history, allowed for some dynamics (see Module 2, section 1.1). Some breeds are disappearing or have disappeared, while others have been formed [Breed information]. Such changes have been possible and necessary as part of the evolution and the dynamics that the variability of the genetic resources allows for interaction with environmental changes.

In the absence of appropriate breed characterization, breed attributes and genes that are potentially beneficial in the future may not be saved. Instead, some breeds are condemned to extinction and in the process some of the good genes that they may have possessed disappear with them, never to be recovered. However, well planned cross-breeding systems could help save the desirable genes, even when the livestock breeds that once possessed such genes are lost (Rege and Gibson, 2003). The successive development of a synthetic breed is a typical example on how valuable genes can be saved for the future (see Module 3, section 4.3).

Within-breed variation for sustainable use and improvement

The sustainable use and improvement of indigenous breeds has been justified on the grounds that they are already adapted to local conditions [CS 1.8 by Mpofu]; [CS 1.35 by Shreeram and Prakash]. It is also a fact that genetic variation exists in productivity within these breeds for most traits of importance and that this potential for genetic improvement has so far only been exploited to a very limited degree [CS 1.2 by Mpofu]; [CS 1.36 by Sartika and Noor]. To wisely select breeding stock, adequate definitions of broad long-term breeding objectives must be established in relation to the prevailing and expected changes of environmental conditions and production systems [CS 1.3 by Mpofu]. Cross-breeding for rapid improvement of traits, such as milk production, requires even more consideration in the choice of breeds and the design of both the cross-breeding programme [CS 1.5 by Kahi] and the breeding programmes of the pure breeds. This is necessary to ensure the future availability of genetic materials needed to develop appropriate genotypes as the environment and human needs change.

A decreasing diversity

Developments in world trade, agricultural policies, consumption patterns, demands for cheaper food and increased productivity, and the availability, but sometimes inappropriate use of new reproduction technologies and selection tools, have favoured the use of high yielding breeds. These breeds require high input and intensive care and management in environments that normally cannot support them adequately. The short-term economic benefits of replacing low yielding but well adapted breeds could be seriously challenged if the high yielding animals cannot withstand the climatic stress and lack the disease resistance needed for the new environments into which they are placed [CS 1.4 by Mpofu]; [CS 1.8 by Mpofu]. This type of breed replacement, often caused by importing exotic breeds or practising cross-breeding with exotic breeds without any long-term breeding plans, has contributed to severe genetic erosion, including extinction of a number of locally adapted breeds in the last few decades.

Although previous World Watch List of global animal genetic resources suggested that approximately 30% of all current livestock breeds are at risk of extinction on critical analysis these are mostly overestimates. However, erosion of animal genetic resources continues to take place, while at the same time some new breed combinations create additional diversity. Generally, erosion of diversity is anticipated to continue according to current trends in population statistics (Gibson and Pullin, 2005). Such a development may threaten the future opportunities to cope with the increased or new human needs and the environmental challenges and market changes for future food and animal production. It also may present new opportunities for better utilization of the preferred breeds and populations.

Why worry about loss in genetic diversity?

Genetic improvement of animal populations is dependent on the existence of genetic variation. Such variation exists between species, between breeds within species and among animals within breeds. As species and breeds are adapted to certain environments through centuries of natural and artificial selection, it may be difficult to restore genetic variation that may still be desired, but that has been lost by breed replacements in certain regions or environments. The continuous loss of breeds and genetic diversity is usually fuelled by short-sighted and restricted genetic and socio-economic considerations [CS 1.17 by Drucker] (also see Tisdell, 2003). The real long-term values, including ecological effects, may not have been taken into account. Also not usually considered are future changes that may have an impact on the needs for variable genetic resources. The irreversible losses of genetic diversity therefore, reduce our opportunities for future developments. That is why it is imperative to critically consider both the present and future breeding programmes of all species and breeds in relation to environmental and economic developments and needs.

The distribution of species by world regions (Figure 5) may lead to the conclusion that ruminants, which today have the largest world coverage [see livestock distribution maps] and are represented by a large number of breeds that are adapted to different environments, would have the best opportunities to adapt to future environmental changes. Similarly, populations confined to a few regions or specialized production systems are more vulnerable to changes in production or economic systems in those regions. Such effects may dramatically reduce the genetic diversity and our future opportunities for development of efficient animal food production under variable conditions. The importance of the Asian region, and especially China, for conservation of a variety of indigenous pig breeds is extremely high, as these breeds are not found elsewhere [Chinese pig breeds-breed info].

Animal genetic diversity undervalued

To put the right emphasis on long-term genetic improvements or the need to conserve genetic variation for present and future use, it seems important to find ways of economic valuation of the genetic resources (Gianni et al., 2003; Scarpa et al., 2003a) [CS 1.17 by Drucker] and their developments. There are well developed procedures for economic evaluations of the improvements of individual traits and for multi-trait breeding objective programmes within a breed [see Weller J. in ICAR Tech. Series No. 3]. Such procedures may consider different time horizons and the probability of the different traits to be expressed in monetary terms. However, these models do not automatically capture the non-monetary values, e.g. social or cultural values, which may also be quite important [CS 1.18 by Drucker]. Lessons from conservation of plant genetic resources call for urgency in the comprehensive valuing of animal genetic resources before further losses occur (Gollin and Evenson, 2003). An approach to optimal allocation of available funds that minimizes genetic diversity losses is discussed by Simianer et al. (2003). Economic valuation methodologies are presented elsewhere (see Anjani-Kumar et al., 2003; Scarpa et al., 2003b; Gianni et al., 2003).

Furthermore, beyond economic evaluation of alternative breeding schemes within a breed or cross-breeding programmes, it seems even more important to value the variation in genetic resources, especially such resources that are not currently commercially viable. Unfortunately, there is no single method to readily apply for such economic valuations, but a few important principles need to be understood (Gianni et al., 2003; Scarpa et al., 2003a; Scarpa et al., 2003b).

Normal economic market forces have driven much of the extinction of the world’s biodiversity, whereby lower yielding animals or breeds have been replaced by higher yielding stock. Without considering the total economic merits of the different characteristics such as production, fertility and disease resistance, the total economic effects in the long run have been small and even negative in many cases. The total economic value (TEV) of one genetic resource compared to another must, therefore, include all functional aspects of the animals and also all indirect use values (IUV), such as long-term ecological or social effects, along with the direct use values (DUV), which also must consider the long time horizon [ CS 1.18 by Drucker ]. Furthermore, TEV should include option values (OV) which account for the unforeseen future needs, just as an insurance.

All valuations assume correct weighting of traits in the breeding objectives defined, meaning that proper consideration must be given to production and adaptive traits and health under prevailing and expected future environmental conditions. For these reasons, the value of conservation of AnGR has generally been underestimated. However, OV may have underestimated the effects of dramatic changes taking place in livestock product trades and markets following globalization of communication and trade. Thus, the future needs to exploit the genetic resources using both conventional and non-conventional ways must be openly sought.

Global initiatives to secure animal genetic resources variability

The increased awareness of the importance of genetic variability among livestock species, breeds and individuals within breeds as a potential for increased food and agricultural production, as demonstrated in many countries and breeds around the world, has led to several global initiatives to ensure the future availability of these resources.

In 1972, the UN Conference on Environment in Stockholm, Sweden, recognized the need to consider biodiversity as an essential resource for humankind’s future well-being. Since then, the FAO has had AnGR and their development on its agenda. However, it was not until 1980 that a strong AnGR programme, funded by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), was launched by FAO. The many initiatives and studies on AnGR around the world, and publications by FAO (i.e. the Animal Genetic Resources Information (AGRI)) made within the framework of that programme, formed the foundation of the next official and crucial step of AnGR development at the global level (FAO, 1993). The State of the World report on AnGR and the subsequent report on strategic priorities for action by FAO (2005b, 2007a) are important achievements at global level. At the UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in 1992, the awareness and seriousness of the loss of biodiversity was expressed to such an extent by representatives of many nations that it led to the development of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) (UNEP, 1992) which was ratified in 1993. The CBD is a legally binding framework for the conservation and sustainable use of all biological diversity and it is intended to establish a process for the equitable sharing of benefits from the use of biodiversity. This development was also supported by many national and regional activities, e.g. by the International Livestock Centre for Africa (ILCA) collecting and publishing all kinds of ‘grey’ literature on local AnGR. The foundation of Rare Breeds International (RBI) in 1989 was another milestone that has proven its value in raising important issues of AnGR in collaboration with many non-governmental organizations (NGOs).

The recognition of the importance of both conserving and efficiently using AnGR and other biological diversity for global food security, as expressed in the CBD, led FAO to initiate the development of a global strategy for the management of AnGR (FAO, 1993; FAO, 1999). Since 1996, FAO has implemented its Global Strategy for the Management of Farm Animal Genetic Resources as a framework for its member nations to give proper consideration to the development of AnGR at national, regional and global levels (Figure 9).


Figure 9. Structure of the FAO management of Global Farm Animal Genetic Resources.
Source: FAO (1999).

This framework assumes the participation of government organizations to provide information on AnGR in each country and to establish operational action plans for conservation and utilization of their AnGR. One important outcome of the implemented global strategy is that an information system called the Domestic Animal Diversity Information System (DAD-IS ) has been established to facilitate the monitoring of AnGR at all levels. An overview of the structure and its integration with national organizations is given in Figure 9. As a basis for development of appropriate conservation programmes, FAO member countries have produced a report on the State of the World’s Animal Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (FAO, 2007a). Drawing on 169 country reports, contributions from a number of international organizations and 12 specially commissioned thematic studies, it presents an analysis of the state of agricultural biodiversity in the livestock sector - origins and development, uses and values, distribution and exchange, risk status and threats - and of capacity to manage these resources (institutions, policies and legal frameworks, structured breeding activities and conservation programmes). The analysis also presents the needs and challenges in the context of the forces driving change in livestock production systems. It explores the tools and methods needed to enhance the use and development of animal genetic resources, which include characterization, genetic improvement, economic evaluation and conservation.

The reports and the other parallel efforts have provided a detailed assessment of roles and values of AnGR and the state of these resources. They reveal a relatively high importance of the livestock sector within agriculture, which is in contrast to its minor role in national development programmes and policies compared to the plant sector. It identifies the national and regional needs and priorities aimed at enhancing capacity to better use and develop AnGR in all production systems. Countries also indicated specific strategic priorities for action for sustainable use, development and conservation of the AnGR currently available to the country and the world livestock farming community and also to enable them to respond in future to inevitable changes in conditions (FAO, 2005b; FAO, 2007a).

Examples of the listed priorities for action include: the need for implementation of effective breeding strategies, institutional and individual capacity building and further research in the area of AnGR. Approaches aimed at addressing each of these at both country and regional levels are currently under discussion under the facilitation and stewardship of FAO. Besides FAO, other international institutions such as the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) will increasingly be needed to facilitate and/or contribute to the regional initiatives.

ILRI is the leading international research organization with a comprehensive programme on AnGR research and development for developing countries. The ILRI programme aims to characterize indigenous breeds in developing countries; to quantify the extent of genetic and production systems diversity and rate of diversity loss; and discover the special genes responsible for population and breed uniqueness so as to better inform and contribute to their sustainable conservation and improvement. Such improvements include planned cross-breeding with other livestock breeds and genotypes, in appropriately designed breeding programmes. To date, ILRI has undertaken a comprehensive characterization of African and Asian cattle, sheep, goat, camel, yak and chicken populations at the molecular and phenotypic levels [CS 1.10 by Okomo]; [CS 1.11 by Gwakisa]; [CS 1.37 by Kharel et al.]. Similar work in other regions, especially in Asia, is underway. At the same time, ILRI is working with national agricultural research systems (NARS) on on-farm phenotypic characterization of indigenous livestock (Mwacharo and Drucker, 2005; Wurzinger et al., 2005).

ILRI has also since 1999 been developing a web-based electronic source of information on indigenous farm AnGR: [DAGRIS] the Domestic Animal Genetic Resources Information System (DAGRIS). This is backed up by bibliographic information and will support research, training, public awareness and genetic improvement and conservation programmes. In Asia, India and China have also allocated tremendous resources to breed characterization, with significant positive achievements so far. In this regard ILRI, in collaboration with the Chinese National Academy of Science and the Indian Council for Agricultural Research (ICAR), is expanding such activities within the Asia region. The Federal Government of India is working with the state governments to phenotypically and genetically characterize all the Indian indigenous livestock breeds. This information is kept and continuously updated in the Indian National Animal Resource Information Systems (INARIS) database, to which a link to DAGRIS is being negotiated. Similar efforts are ongoing in all the developing countries, albeit at varying levels of detail. What is urgently needed is a strategy on how to use this information to formulate and effectively manage breeding programmes.

Global Plan of Action and country initiatives on the management of AnGR

The Global Plan of Action (GPA), which comprises 23 strategic priorities aimed at combating the erosion of animal genetic diversity and at using animal genetic resources sustainably, was adopted in September 2007 (FAO, 2007b). It is a culmination of an extended process leading to the Interlaken Declaration on Animal Genetic Resources. The member countries of FAO confirmed in that document their common and individual responsibilities for conservation, sustainable use and development of animal genetic resources for food and agriculture; for world food security; for improving human nutritional status; and for rural development. They committed themselves to facilitating access to these resources, and ensuring the fair and equitable sharing of the benefits from their use.

Generally, the aims of the GPA are to support and increase the overall effectiveness of national, regional and global efforts for the sustainable use, development and conservation of animal genetic resources; contribute to the development of a comprehensive framework for the management of agricultural biodiversity; and facilitate international cooperation and the mobilization of resources. Country reports from the 169 countries formed the basis for the development of the strategic areas and priorities of the GPA. A review of the reports confirmed the significant and irreplaceable contribution that the diversity of farm animals makes to the food security and development of nations. It also revealed a serious erosion of genetic diversity and underutilization of AnGR. Consequently, a global strategy was necessary to guide national, regional and global efforts to strengthen the contribution of domestic animals to food security and rural development, and to prevent further erosion of important AnGR. The GPA addresses four main strategic areas and proposes specific strategic priorities for actions in each area (FAO, 2007b):

1) Characterization, inventory and monitoring.

Strategic priorities of action suggested to improve the understanding of AnGR in this area are:

    • Inventory and characterization of AnGR, monitoring trends and risks associated with them, and establishing country-based early-warning and response systems
    • Developing international technical standards and protocols for characterization, inventory, and monitoring of trends and associated risks

    2) Sustainable use and development.

    Activities in this strategic area would enhance sustainable use and development of AnGR relevant to all production systems, with a focus on food security and rural development. They include:

      • Establishing and strengthening national sustainable use policies
      • Establishing national species and breed development strategies and programmes
      • Promoting agro-ecosystems approaches to the management of AnGR
      • Supporting indigenous and local production systems and associated knowledge systems of importance to the maintenance and sustainable use of AnGR

      3) Conservation.

      Strategic priorities in this area focus on the steps needed to preserve genetic diversity and integrity for the benefit of current and future generations. These actions are summarized as:

        • Establishing national conservation policies
        • Establishing or strengthening in situ conservation programmes
        • Establishing or strengthening ex situ conservation programmes
        • Developing and implementing regional and global long-term conservation strategies
        • Developing approaches and technical standards for conservation

        4) Policies, institutions and capacity building.

        The priorities of action in this area directly address the key questions of practical implementation, through coherent and synergistic development of the necessary institutions and capacities. They include:

          • Establishing or strengthening national institutions, including national focal points, for planning and implementing AnGR measures, for livestock sector development
          • Establishing or strengthening national educational and research facilities
          • Strengthening national human capacity for characterization, inventory, and monitoring of trends and associated risks, for sustainable use and development, and for conservation
          • Establishing or strengthening international information sharing, research and education
          • Strengthening international cooperation to build capacities in developing countries and countries with economies in transition
          • Establishing regional focal points and strengthening international networks
          • Raising national awareness of the roles and values of AnGR
          • Raising regional and international awareness of the roles and values of AnGR
          • Reviewing and developing national policies and legal frameworks for AnGR
          • Reviewing and developing international policies and regulatory frameworks relevant to AnGR
          • Coordinating the Commission’s efforts on AnGR policy with other international forums
          • Strengthening efforts to mobilize resources, including financial resources, for the conservation, sustainable use and development of AnGR.

          The Interlaken Declaration was recognized that the essential role of FAO was to support country-driven efforts in implementing the GPA. One step in that direction was the ILRI-Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU)-FAO workshop held in Arusha, Tanzania, in September 2009 and with participants from different countries in the Eastern, Central and Southern Africa. An AnGR strategic outcome map derived from the GPA was examined and discussed during the workshop in order to better understand the goals and desired outcomes of the GPA. Through group discussions, outcomes and activities/actions were added to the strategic outcome map developed from the GPA (Figure 10).


          Figure 10. AnGR Strategic Outcome Map - based on the Global Plan of Action for AnGR. (Developed by participants at the ILRI-SLU-FAO workshop, Arusha, Tanzania, 2009)

          The map shows the outcomes and joint actions that need to be considered in order to achieve improved use and conservation of AnGR throughout the region. Each of the main strategic areas has actions/activities, summarized in boxes, that were considered important and outcomes, in circles. The bigger circle at the far right-hand side of the figure is the desired outcome of the strategic map, which is in line with what the countries agreed upon in the Interlaken Declaration on AnGR. The main strategic areas and outcomes are not completely independent of each as illustrated by the overlapping circles. This reveals that the GPA contributes to creating synergies among the ongoing strategic priorities for action. It is also a comprehensive and coherent framework for enhancing management activities in relation to AnGR.

          The information from the 169 country reports (FAO, 2007a) and the discussions on the strategic outcome map (Figure 10) clearly indicate that countries face organizational problems that, if not effectively addressed, would prevent effective implementation of GPA and management of the respective AnGR. Development of the necessary capacities and influence, and formulation of policies needed to sustainably manage AnGR in the respective countries and regions, is pegged to the pool of expertise and institutions that form the regional focal points. Currently, a number of activities joined to the GPA strategic areas in most of the countries are ongoing. However, these initiatives are still far below expectations. Lack of technical and infrastructural support is cited as a major drawback to this process, especially in the developing countries. In addition, policies and legal frameworks influencing the livestock sector do not favour sustainable utilization of AnGR. Policies, that promote conservation and sustainable use of farm AnGR, need to be urgently formulated and enforced to prevent further erosion and underutilization of AnGR.

          A critical step in ensuring sustainable management of AnGR is the strategic development of a strong knowledge and skills base among farmers, frontline technical support staff, policy implementers, researchers and technology transfer agents through planned and concerted capacity building initiatives. Awareness has to be increased in order to obtain financial resources for improvement and conservation of AnGR. In addition, information and monitoring systems, livestock breed organizations, and subsequent establishment of livestock breeding programmes are urgently required to prevent further loss of important domestic diversity.

          How could we ensure future diversity of Animal Genetic Resources?

          Realizing that a substantial number of breeds are currently at risk of extinction and that conservation programmes are lacking for more than 75% of these breeds [Breed information], ensuring genetic diversity to meet the future needs is of great concern. Three circumstances are quite obvious.

          Firstly, there is no method to conserve a breed for future generations that is more efficient than continuing to improve the breed in such a way that it keeps its commercial value for food and agricultural production or for other economic or cultural reasons, while also considering the ecological aspects of its use [CS 1.2 by Mpofu]; [CS 1.7 by Khombe]. This sustainable use of AnGR imposes a tremendous challenge to the livestock policies and breeding programmes of indigenous breeds in developing countries, where the needs to increase food production are greatest, to wisely use the genetic diversity for improved animal production efficiency.

          Secondly, the awareness of shrinking diversity and the challenge to increase future food production must be translated into efficient long-term strategies and operational breeding schemes. This requires good knowledge of both the actual production and market systems, including socio-economic and cultural values, and the characteristics of the breeds in order to formulate adequate breeding objectives (Module 3,Section 4); [Hammond and Galal in ICAR Tech. Series No. 3]; [Groen in ICAR Tech. Series No. 3]. In this respect, it is invaluable to capture ‘indigenous’ knowledge. Facilitating the infrastructure needed using adequate selection tools assumes a high degree of both theoretical knowledge and practical experience of animal recording and genetic evaluation [Groen in ICAR Tech. Series No. 3]. Thus, capacity building at all levels is necessary, as are research for characterization of actual breeds as a basis for choice and use of breeds, including the important genes that they possess, and use of this information to design and implement sustainable breeding programmes.

          Thirdly, because restricted short-term economic benefits may override the long-term benefits, including indirect and option values, in the decision process for choice of alternative genetic resources to be used, there should be policies that support conservation and use of potentially important breeds, which usually carry some unique valuable traits. That is the type of framework that FAO has established through its global strategy. However, ensuring that the right support is given, priorities are set and appropriate action plans are put in place to allow AnGR to be sustainably used remains the responsibility of each country. In this context, ILRI’s research and capacity building programme [ILRI-SLU Progress Report, 2004] plays a significant role in augmenting the efforts of FAO and regional research organization in revealing the new knowledge needed and to strengthen the national capacities in synthesizing and transforming such knowledge into sustainable programmes for conservation and utilization of indigenous AnGR.