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Livestock Genetic Resources

Farmers around the world use over 4500 breeds or strains of domestic livestock of some 40+ species. But nearly one third of the world's livestock breeds are currently at risk of disappearing (approximately six breeds per month become extinct) and further erosion in animal diversity will result in the loss of options for use in increasing long-term productivity. "There is already less genetic variation in farm animals than in crop plant species," says Keith Hammond, Senior Officer in FAO's Animal Genetic Resources Group. "Further erosion invites disaster as the environmental and economic risks facing small farmers and poor communities are certain to increase in coming years."

Taiwan native goat
Photo credit: Taiwan Livestock Research Institute

With declining animal genetic resources (AnGR), possible unidentified genes within non-specialized, indigenous breeds of livestock in tropical developing countries are at risk from being lost for ever. These unidentified genes could be vital in future breeding programmes. Concern over this loss of biodiversity in recent years resulted in the signing of the Convention of Biological Diversity by 159 countries and signatories are now obligated to develop national plans for the conservation and use of biodiversity. This is often difficult for developing countries who may have no real idea of the number and types of each breed of livestock. However, a new FAO initiative for domestic animal diversity, iDAD, is providing support (through its Global Strategy for the Management of Farm AnGR) to enable these countries to obtain genetic information through surveying and spot censors of different breeds. Africa, for instance, has been divided into three regions with each country within a region collaborating through an existing regional organization (ASARECA - E. Africa, CORAF - W. Africa and SADC - Southern Africa). Countries have been invited to establish a national focal point for AnGR and these activities are co-ordinated through the regional organization. Training in evaluating genetic resources will also be available.

The International Livestock Research Institute's (ILRI) is also involved in sustaining the diversity of important domesticated AnGR in developing countries by encouraging and supporting the availability of this germplasm for research and animal improvement programmes. To achieve this, ILRI is currently involved in breed surveys and characterization to gather baseline information on previously undocumented populations and to identify threatened breeds. This information will also become part of ILRI's computerized database on indigenous AnGR which is now at an advanced stage of development. Genetic fingerprinting (molecular characterization) is also being used by ILRI to determine how closely 150 of Africa's cattle breeds are related to each other. The ultimate goal is to classify populations into distinct genetic groups so as to facilitate rational conservation and use of these AnGR in the future.

To help improve productivity in African livestock, ILRI scientists are involved in identifying and conserving tropical livestock breeds that may carry genes controlling resistance to diseases. In particular, the N'Dama breed of cattle is currently being assessed for its tolerance to trypanosomiasis: ILRI scientists are looking for sequences of DNA that 'mark' the genes controlling resistance to trypanosomiasis so that, in future, these resistant genes might be transferred to other breeds that are more productive than N'Dama cattle (e.g. Boran cattle in East Africa and European dairy cattle in West Africa). The effect of internal parasites in the tropics is one of the most important constraints to small ruminant production and a sustainable and low-cost solution could be provided by breeding for parasite resistance: in Ethiopia, two indigenous breeds of sheep (Horro and Menz) are currently being assessed for their resistance to gastro-intestinal parasites and their ability to survive on low quality diet; and similar studies on Red Maasai and Dorper sheep from the coastal region of Kenya have already revealed that Red Maasai demonstrate a better resistance to endoparasites.

At ICARDA (International Centre for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas), Shami or Damascus goats from Syria are being studied for their genetic potential in relation to milk production and varying nutritional feeds. Shami goats generally have a good high yield of milk, even under the harsh climatic conditions of the region, and a high twinning and kidding rate throughout the year which makes them popular with local farmers. However, more sheep are generally found in the region so by comparing the results of the Shami goat trials with similar trials conducted on Awassi sheep at Tel Hadya and published data on dairy cows, ICARDA can assess the true potential of these goats.

Indigenous breeds are also being studied and conserved at different centres across Taiwan by the Taiwan Livestock Research Institute. Amongst the species of livestock which are being conserved are the endangered Taiwan Native Goat. This particular conservation programme includes the establishment of a small population of goats as well as storage of frozen semen and embryos. Chinese Geese are also being conserved whilst hybrids of Chinese geese and foreign breeds are being tested for better growth performance and meat quality.

In many conservation programmes, farmers have an important role to play in the assessment of genetic resources as they know the characteristics of their breed with regards to disease resistance, climate adaptation and productivity. Farmers often select their most productive livestock for controlled breeding and may even castrate inferior males to help maintain the breed characteristics within the herd or flock. However, farmers need to be supported in their work as the increasing pressures of food demands and decreasing availability of land can result in the abandonment of traditional breeds in the search for greater productivity. Farmers need financial, scientific and technical support to enable them to conserve and use traditional varieties while experimenting with and developing new varieties. One way of doing this is by promoting an appreciation of indigenous varieties and breeds as well as developing markets for them to increase farm income while ensuring conservation. At the same time, farmers' indigenous livestock knowledge should be documented and saved for future breeding programmes.

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