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Conserving animal genetic resources - the race is on

Action to conserve livestock genetic resources lags seriously behind plant conservation and the consequences for agriculture are potentially very serious. This was the warning with which Samuel Jutzi, Director FAO's Animal Production Division, began an international meeting in Rome 31 March - 2 April. "Compared with plant genetic resources there's such a clear gap, " he said. "We started so much later and we still have a long uphill struggle to get for animal genetic resources the recognition it deserves."

Listening attentively were representatives of more than 130 countries, 85 of which have completed national country reports, in which are recorded the precise visual and molecular characteristics, population size and whereabouts of every important national farm breed.

Vietnamese pot bellied pig
Vietnamese pot bellied pig

Characterising genetic resources is a beginning but taking the necessary conservation action without further delay is the next challenge. Ex-situ conservation of genetic resources, by holding breeding groups in zoos or as embryos frozen in genebanks, is effective but too costly. In-situ breed survival, on farm, is both cheaper and more effective, most especially if a breed, or one of its products, has clear monetary value. One example from South Africa is how a brighter future is in prospect for the N'guni breed of cattle now that their multi-coloured hides are in vogue for furniture coverings. The South African hard-footed or 'hut' pig is also starting to be popular: the large amount of fat it produces is processed to make the high-value snack food known locally as 'crackling'. Such a pig can make as much as SA Rand 1000, significantly more than a commercially bred animal.

Finding or creating new markets for all rare farm animals or their products is a huge challenge. However, there are other routes to justifying conservation. An example from Argentina demonstrates how, when a breed is exported, having diverged genetically from its ancestral stock, it may become a valuable resource to its ancestral stock. When Aberdeen Angus cattle were exported to Argentina from Scotland a century or more ago, they were selected for size, lean meat and ability to thrive on grass. In Europe and North America the breed came to lack these now desirable traits and it is ironic that Argentina has been able to export semen and embryos back to Scotland to regenerate the breed in its place of origin.

Any livestock industry, large or small, needs genetic diversity on which it can draw to cope with whatever challenges the future holds, changes in disease, climate or market preference. Unfortunately, commercial farmers tend to become reliant on a narrow genetic base. In the short term they get the most production but they, and the future of their industry, ultimately depend on the much greater genetic diversity that so often lies in the hands of the small-scale producers. Which is why it is essential that more must be done to assist smaller producers who maintain the diversity of animal genetic resources that remain with them alone.

Ultimately, the financial cost of conservation may be the deciding factor. Many of the animal geneticists and others present at the Rome meeting pledged to try to convince those outside agriculture of the need, not just to conserve but to find funding for it. Without conservation funding many now rare breeds will become extinct. Erling Fimland, Director of the Nordic Gene Bank for Farm Animals in Norway, summarized the situation when he asserted that, "Diversity is a fundamental resource but the international mainstream is focussing on uniformity. That will mean huge problems for us all in future. We have to get that thought at the heart of political thinking."

FAO's first report on the state of the world's animal genetic resources is to be published in 2006 and will hopefully inform and strengthen the political will to act. Chairing the final day's inter-governmental session, which discussed progress towards that goal, Carlos Mezzadra, coordinator of Argentina's national genetic conservation programme, was content with what has been achieved thus far. "To get so many people around the world working with animal genetic resources is amazing," he said. But meeting and talking is not enough, and every country represented was urged to do more, and to do it faster. Otherwise, more farm animal breeds will be lost forever. "The main achievement of this meeting is a consensus on conserving genetic resources and the decision to make better use of them," said Sonia Maciel of Mozambique's Animal Production Institute. "And we should not only be relying on FAO to help with in-country conservation; because, as time goes by, animal breeds are being lost. We just don't have very much time."

Written by: Susie Emmett

Date published: May 2004


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