June 25, 2010

African Livestock A Neglected Genetic Resource

Researchers warn that the genetic diversity of Africa's native livestock needs to be collected and studied before it is gone for good.

According to researchers, native breeds have adapted to tolerate parasites or produce healthy milk yields in harsh conditions. They said that these traits had yet to be unlocked by the scientific community.

Since farmers began switching to "exotic" cattle from more-developed nations, the indigenous breeds have begun dying out, they observed.

"African cattle are just another species of ruminants in a landscape already full of ruminants, and they have adapted to this environment," explained co-author Olivier Hanotte from the University of Nottingham's Institute of Genetics.

"But rather than unlocking the genetic secrets of these breeds and using what is already there, there is a tendency within sub-Saharan Africa to move across to the highly developed breeds from Europe," Hanotte told BBC News.

However, most of the "exotic" breeds from Europe were not developed to cope in the harsh conditions found in Africa, he added. "The only way they can survive is if you completely change the production system as well and mimic the systems used in Europe," he told BBC News.

One of the drawbacks of switching to a European style of farming was that it increased the likelihood of redirecting the valuable food crops meant for human consumption in order to feed the livestock, he explained, adding that it is probably "the worst thing that you could do."

Hanotte believes that some of the adaptations found in sub-Saharan Africa livestock could be of interest to the global agricultural industry. "We have lost, for example, many adaptation traits in European livestock, but it may still be present in Africa."

One example is "resistance to gastro-intestinal parasites in small ruminants. This is a world-wide issue that has an economic impact in sheep farming," he said. "There are a number of ways that you can tackle this, one of which is to use drugs, but some African breeds are actually resistant to these parasites."

"What we should actually be doing is acknowledging that the (indigenous) animals are living, producing and reproducing," said Hanotte. These indigenous animals are capable of providing the genetic material, "if we are willing to invest in the genomic tools to improve the breeds in a sustainable way."

But genomic research in agriculture has been concentrated in the developed world. And with a "lack of technical capability and funding in Africa," research into the continent's indigenous livestock is basically nonexistent. 

"Yet in Europe, we have lost a great majority of livestock's genetic source," Hanotte noted. "So the reason why we should tap African livestock genomes is not only for Africa, it is for everyone."


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