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Towards better management of animal genetic resources

K. Hammond and H. Leitch

The authors are, respectively, Senior Officer and Visiting Scientist in the Animal Genetic Resources Group, Animal Production and Health Division, FAO, Rome, Italy.

Food security for all?
Why animal genetic resources?
Evolution going wrong
The evolution of animal breeding
Ambiguous terms
Motives for conserving genetic resources
Conservation imperatives for animal genetic resources
FAO's global management programme: structure and work elements

Food security for all?

At the current rate of population growth, the consumption of food and agricultural products during the second decade of the next century should be equivalent to that consumed over the last 10 000 years (Hammond and Leitch, 1995). Yet this increasing demand must be met from approximately the same amount of land, not so much from the arable land in developed countries, since population growth rates there are approaching stability, but from 80 percent of the land in the developing countries already exposed to food deficiency and higher population growth rates. In these production environments, in particular, food security means both to increase production and to reduce its variability over time. The challenge to achieve food security for all is greater now than ever before, with one out of six people in the world currently being underfed. Fortunately, it is generally not commensurate with human nature to "give in". Indeed, during recent decades, countries such as India have shown their ability to increase food production and to reduce the human population growth rate. The potential to increase food and agricultural production will remain great in most developing countries, but only if the fundamental problems can be corrected.

In the article "Livestock - a driving force for food security and sustainable development" in this issue (p. 5), it is emphasized that animals are fundamental to most agro-ecosystems, as is the genetic material of plants and animals for each production system. This material is critical for system resilience and flexibility and enables production and productivity to be increased. Food security will only be achieved and maintained by utilizing appropriate genetic resources.

Why animal genetic resources?

The type of genetic material required to meet these challenges must be determined by the nature of the production environments, which differ greatly within countries and regions. For example, climatic conditions, the type and digestibility of feed resources, disease stresses, the level of management and, of course, the kind and quality of products required must all be taken into consideration. The wide range of production environments requires an equally diverse range of biological types to enable sustainable production. Plant breeding has long accepted this fundamental approach. However, the improvement of domestic animals, particularly in this century, has increasingly emphasized the development of just one or a few breeds in each species, at the expense of others. Most of this genetic development has been done in the minority high-input, high-output production systems of the world. Worse still, the resulting genetic material has been introduced, often too rapidly, into the medium-to-low input and high-stress agro-ecosystems of the developing regions, often to the detriment of local highly adapted and, commonly, highly variable genetic material - the very thing that is needed to underpin and further develop production, productivity and sustainability in these production environments.

Evolution going wrong

The consequences of this evolution for most of the production environments of many developing countries are clear: low reproductive rates as well as high death rates of exotic "superior" animals and an increased exposure to risk for the rural communities involved, which only further encourages the gravitation of people to already overcrowded cities. Even more serious, the latest results of FAO's Global Survey of Animal Genetic Resources, covering 24 animal species used for food and agriculture (Box 1), conservatively suggest that one out of four breeds is now at a very high risk of being lost. The proportion could even be as high as one in three, with some 1500 livestock breeds now represented by less than 20 breeding sires or fewer than 1 000 breeding females. The results of a second global survey show that almost none of these high-risk resources are stored in a gene bank; most reside only in high-risk developing countries. These are the very regions most likely to have unique genetic types because of the greater range of production environments and the combinations of intense stresses (disease, drought) in these production systems. As few studies have been carried out, little documentation exists for the majority of these genetic resources at risk. As a result, the very resources that could well become so important over the next few decades, particularly with the advances made in molecular technology, are not being managed wisely at all.

The evolution of animal breeding

To respond effectively to this range of challenges, better management of these genetic resources, which, for all intents and purposes, can be considered irreplaceable, is crucial if the demands for food and agriculture are to be met in the short time available. It is not difficult to specify the components of good management for this biological material. But the successful implementation of management plans must involve many different and dispersed groups of people throughout the world, including governments and non-governmental organizations; the private sector, which of course owns most of the animals; and intergovernmental and other international research and development agencies; as well as local training, research and animal production service groups, particularly animal geneticists and veterinarians who commonly provide much advice to industry and government.

In the process, Animal Genetics and Breeding, as it is commonly taught and applied, will continue to embrace a broader spectrum. These areas of science and technology have already been changing rapidly over recent decades as a result of important advances made in theory, informatics and reproductive and molecular biology. Animal Genetics and Breeding will be further developed to accommodate properly all facets of the management of animal genetic resources.

It is not that new and different principles are required to execute the broadening of Animal Genetics and Breeding properly. The mix of the principles and techniques of population genetics and molecular and reproductive biology, together with a range of areas within genetics and with animal breeding itself as the operations science, will change, with the integration of the conglomerate of principles and techniques concerned being improved, particularly in education, training and application.

BOX 1 - Key domestic animal species currently being surveyed for the status of their genetic resources

Mammalian species

Avian species




Domestic duck




Muscovy duck


Domestic goose


Guinea fowl







Bactrian camel






*The term cattle is used in the broad sense to include Bos indicus, Bos taurus, Banteng and Mithan.

Ambiguous terms

Unequivocal terms are important when developing better ways to inhabit this planet and to manage its irreplaceable resources. Immature approaches are generally accompanied by terminology for which interpretations differ among people, and that used in the management of genetic resources is no exception. Terms such as "conservation" are interpreted somewhat differently between languages, and the meaning can differ among the segments of biological diversity, for example, between wildlife and agrobiodiversity. And even within agrobiodiversity, there is a difference in meaning between the management of plant genetic resources and that of animal genetic resources. Animal agriculture must now accept those terms that have recently realized wider community acceptance. They have also been incorporated into international law and other intergovernmental agreements, such as Agenda 21 and the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD).

Considering further the example term "conservation", in the narrow sense it can be equivalent to preservation, i.e. storing those genetic resources that are not currently popular among farmers for possible future use, either in their own right or, more likely, because they contain particular subsets of genes that would otherwise take time to develop. In the broader sense, conservation incorporates all operations involved in the management of genetic resources, such as the inventory, monitoring and characterization of these resources, the development and better use of more of the adapted indigenous genetic material, the maintenance of unique resources to help meet future requirements and the establishment of better access to a wider variety of these resources, particularly for research and development.

Motives for conserving genetic resources

A range of motives are often put forward both for and against the conservation of genetic resources. These can be grouped into matters of principle and pragmatic considerations. Box 2 contains a summary of these motives for the conservation of animal genetic resources, with conservation being treated both in the narrow and the broader senses.

Conservation imperatives for animal genetic resources

With the estimation that some 1 500 of the 4 500 breeds of the world's domestic animal species are now at high risk of extinction, and with so little known about most of these resources, scarce funds and other support currently available should not be concentrated on a small number of breed rescue projects. Emphasis must be on implementing a sound management infrastructure and a broad technical programme that has the potential to help countries design and implement national action strategies, as required under the CBD. With these considerations firmly in mind, the imperative actions for the conservation of domestic animal genetic diversity have been identified by FAO as follows:

· Identify and understand those unique genetic resources that collectively comprise the global gene pools for each of the important domestic animal species used for food and agriculture.

· Develop and properly utilize the associated diversity to increase production and productivity, achieve sustainable agricultural systems and meet demands for specific product types. Hence, the effective use of breeds is also an essential component of conservation, and perhaps the most cost-effective; a further reason for enabling the development and use of more breeds.

· Monitor all genetic resources, particularly those that are currently represented by small animal populations or that are otherwise being displaced by one breed replacement strategy or another.

· Preserve the unique resources for which sufficient current demand cannot be engendered.

· Train and involve people in the management of these resources, including their best use and development, and in the maintenance of diversity.

· Communicate to the world's community the importance of its domestic animal genetic resources and of the associated diversity, their current exposure to loss and their irreplaceability.

FAO's global management programme: structure and work elements

Based on the conservation imperatives, and in accordance with the resolutions of its governing bodies, FAO has designed the Global Programme for the Management of Farm Animal Genetic Resources. The programme is now ready for launching.

The planned global strategy for this programme, recently supported by the FAO Council, involves four interdependent components:

· an intergovernmental support mechanism, to enable direct government involvement and ensure continuity of policy advice and support;

· a geographically distributed and country-based global structure, to assist and coordinate national actions throughout the world;

· a technical programme of activities, grouped under seven elements;

· cadres of experts, to guide the programme and maximize its cost-effectiveness.

The country-based global structure

The Convention on Biological Diversity clearly accepts each country's sovereignty over its genetic resources. This alone means that the structure for a global programme of management must have a country-level focus. This is further underscored by the fact that countries possess different subsets of the total breeds found throughout the world, forming each domestic animal species. Additionally, countries are likely to become increasingly interdependent in seeking access to unique animal genetic resources from elsewhere.

BOX 2 - Motives for the conservation of animal genetic resources

Motives for

Motives against

Part A. "Conservation" in the narrow sense = Preservation

Section 1. Retain animal genetic resources as a matter of principle

Custodian of earth's resources

Consumer of earth's resources

Why eliminate in generations what has developed over millennia?

Evolution is dynamic: loss and generation of diversity are continuous processes

Section 2 Pragmatic motives

Genetic material underpins production, productivity, product quality and sustainability increases

Non-genetic manipulation is of overwhelming importance

Genetic variation within populations increases resilience to environmental changes

Homozygous and cloned lines will be the best

World agriculture will continue to comprise a wide spectrum of production environments

All production environments are rapidly moving towards becoming high input, high output, low stress, low risk

The current and future traits of primary importance are quantitative genetics; trait combinations are important and costly to realize in time and money; the fundamental approach to animal breeding will remain quantitative

Molecular genetics will ensure all future needs are met cost-effectively for all production environments

About 50 percent of the quantitative genetic variation in each species is at breed level

"Modern" breeds are sustainably best in all environments

A net loss of unique genetic sets of genes is under way

Future environmental and nutritional needs will be best met using only the "modern" breeds

Costed correctly, the least-cost scenario for humankind is conservation

Fancy and rare breeds have no place in agriculture

Food security helps achieve peace and satisfaction for all

More synthetics are being formed than breeds are being lost

Financial and human resources are inadequate to develop and maintain conservation programmes

Let them care for themselves

Part B. "Conservation" in the broad sense = All operations in the management of animal genetic resources, i.e. identify, monitor and describe; develop and use; maintain; exchange

Motives for

Motives against

Section 1 Conserve as a matter of principle

All items under Part A, Section 1, plus...

It is a broadened, more rational approach to animal breeding

It is not animal breeding

Section 2 Pragmatic motives

All items under Part A, Section 2, plus

Countries are becoming increasingly dependent on new genetic material

We have all we need to remain competitive now and in the future

"The market" produces the wrong results

Let "the market" decide

Will best meet short- and long-term needs

Cannot afford it

Can dramatically reduce the size of the management task

Too ambitious

Developing and using breeds wherever possible is low-cost conservation

Cannot maintain effective animal breeding programmes in developing countries

High level of ignorance is a key constraint

Most of the important research has been done

This primary level in the global infrastructure will provide for early implementation of the necessary within country networks, enabling countries to design, implement and maintain comprehensive national strategies for the management of their animal genetic resources. Scarce financial resources wild be concentrated on initiating the key infrastructure required. The geographically distributed global structure contains three levels.

National focal point. Each country will be invited to establish a national focal point for the programme, comprising a coordinating institution and a technical contact nominated by and strongly linked to the government and to the regional focal point. The national focus will be the point of contact for the country's involvement in the FAO animal genetic resources programme and will assist in establishing and maintaining the essential in-country network. To date, 49 countries have established focal points: 37 in Europe and 12 in Asia.

Regional focal points. The regional focuses will help develop national coordinators, design and implement regional networks as integral components of the global structure, achieve an early and wide introduction of national strategies and trigger a range of projects covering the conservation complex for domestic animals. They will need to be established with the assistance of extrabudgetary funds. Regional focal points are planned for Asia and the Pacific; Europe; the Americas; Africa; and the Near East and the Mediterranean. The regional focal point for Asia and the Pacific has recently been initiated in Bangkok, Thailand, through funding from Japan, and has quickly demonstrated the great value of this level of focus.

Global focus point. The programme's global focus is being established at FAO Headquarters to facilitate, communicate and coordinate the worldwide effort. This will include developing the necessary modalities for countries and assisting them in establishing their management strategies for animal genetic resources; coordinating the essential technical work required globally; developing, implementing and maintaining the Domestic Animal Diversity Information System (DAD-IS); communicating the issues throughout the world; maintaining the early warning system for animal genetic resources; involving the range of governmental, non-governmental and intergovernmental parties essential for the programme's success; servicing the intergovernmental mechanism; and seeking the essential extrabudgetary funding for the programme.

Work elements

The structure must be accompanied by a cost-effective work programme if the global management is to be successful in achieving the imperatives over time.

DAD-IS. This information system will be available through the Internet in early 1996, as the programme's information axis. It incorporates a range of modules: a number of unique databases; advanced technical aids to help all users; various lists and documents; and research and training tools.

Characterization. Surveying and describing genetic resources and establishing the magnitude of existing animal genetic diversity and reliable rates of loss are cornerstones of the programme. The immensity of this task is highlighted by the fact that, globally, there are some 4 500 unique breeds, comprising more than 40 species, with at least some of them in most countries, yet there is hardly any systematic monitoring in place and only very limited baseline information available. FAO's global data bank for animal genetic resources now includes basic descriptive data on roughly 85 percent of these known breeds, representing 28 species. The population data provided through surveys enables the monitoring of breeds at risk of extinction. This information is summarized in the much expanded second edition of the FAO/United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) World watch list for domestic animal diversity (FAO, 1995).

Mechanisms for conserving animal genetic resources

Conservation is not an end in itself, but rather a means of ensuring that animal genetic resources are better understood and available and more effectively used and developed by present and future generations. Once genetic resources have been identified and characterized, two basic conservation activities follow, which may be defined as in situ and ex situ.

In situ conservation. The generation and loss of alleles alternative forms of each of the 100 000 or so genes carried by each animal - is a dynamic process that should be maintained at close equilibrium through sound management. The strategy for global in situ activity emphasizes wise use of indigenous animal genetic resources by; establishing and implementing breeding goals and strategies for sustainable production systems. Infrastructure for animal recording and breeding is well established; in developed countries, but infrastructure appropriate to systems in developing countries remains scarce. Modalities for simplified animal recording, genetic development and! dissemination are needed for each species for a range of national livestock structures in developing countries.

Ex situ conservation. In effect, this is the storage of animal genetic resources, which farmers are currently not interested in using. It includes cryogenic preservation and the maintenance of breeds from domesticated species as live-animal populations in parks, zoos and other locations away from the environment in which they are being developed. The global programmes's ex situ conservation strategy is still being developed, but it is based on the use of live-animal populations wherever practicable, supported by cryopreservation where technology exists or can be developed, combining within-country gene banks with global repositories of last resort. This strategy is in keeping with the Convention on Biological Diversity. A range of animal health issues must be overcome, however, before much international storage of and access to such material can be effective for the domestic animal species. The technology required for storing both male and female gametes of all species of interest is not yet developed. Of course, interested governments, non-governmental organizations, research institutions and private enterprises will be encouraged to maintain in vivo samples of breeds at risk, with national inventories being established and kept up to date so that the genetic resources are readily available for use and study.

In situ and ex situ conservation schemes are complementary, not mutually exclusive, with their application for a particular animal genetic resource depending on farmers' current use of it and its comparative uniqueness. Furthermore, frozen germplasm can play an important role in the support of in situ breed development strategies.

Management action plans. The global programme provides assistance to countries for the major task of developing and implementing comprehensive and practical guidelines for the design of national action strategies for the management of animal genetic resources, which are also to harmonize with the provisions of the CBD. The global action strategy will be further elaborated by integrating all national action plans, and it will be continually updated as knowledge, technology, CBD negotiations by member countries and policy implementation progress.

Capacity-building imperatives. The ability of countries to implement effective national action strategies for the conservation of animal genetic resources will largely depend on human resources and institutional capacities. Countries will need to determine their training, technological and research needs.

Human and financial resources must be used properly within and between countries. To assist in carefully targeting all available resources early in the programme, a further activity involving the conduct of project identification missions is already under way in some parts of the world. These missions will establish a global portfolio of the most effective conservation activities ready for formulation, funding and execution, to build on the basic framework now being implemented. These specially designed missions are being funded by various donors and will focus on the following regions: China; sub-Saharan Africa (French-speaking and English-speaking); central and eastern Europe; the former USSR; Latin America and the Caribbean (divided into two subregions); the Near East and the Mediterranean; and the Indian subcontinent. The first four of the intended nine missions are currently under way, with the remainder still to be funded.

International instruments. The global activity for conservation and use of plant genetic resources operates with technical input from FAO's intergovernmental Commission on Plant Genetic Resources. No such mechanism is in place to facilitate intergovernmental input into the management of animal genetic resources. Since some of the technical logistics, and the policy and legal issues, are fundamentally similar for both plants and animals, and because the development and maintenance of more sustainable agricultural systems must be promoted and governments need to review the progress of this global programme, plans are in progress to expand the Commission on Plant Genetic Resources to include domestic animals under the title of the Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture.


The outcomes being sought by FAO's Global Programme for the Management of Farm Animal Genetic Resources are inventory control and early warning; improved comparative description of breeds; rationalization of the total long-term management activity; more effective development and sustainable use of a greater range of unique resources; a much higher level of public awareness of the range of issues; major reduction in the number of breeds at high risk of loss; maintenance of and ready access to the more unique animal genetic resources; increased and more effective training and capacity-building; successful compliance of countries to their obligations under the CBD; and the coordination of all efforts to maximize global cost-effectiveness. Domestic animal diversity represents a resource that is crucial to achieving food security for the rapidly growing human population, not only with respect to the local or national situation, but also because of the increasing interdependence among countries for unique animal genetic resources. The country-based global structure of the programme is designed to recognize and emphasize responsibility and activities within countries, to involve countries and other essential parties, to maximize opportunities for conservation action, including development and use, and to align fully with the CBD.

The programme introduces some changes in emphasis and a broadening of the long-accepted approach to animal breeding principles and practice to harmonize with the decisions of a large section of the world community. Much remains to be done to better utilize indigenous resources, in particular, and to ensure that the vast majority of the largely unique genetic resources, especially those in developing countries, are not lost under the increasingly intense pressures currently being applied. Effective assistance is required now.


FAO. 1995. World watch list for domestic animal diversity. 2nd ed. Edited by B. Scherf. Rome, FAO and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

Hammond, K. & Leitch, H.W. 1995. The FAO Global Programme for Management of Farm Animal Genetic Resources. J. Anim. Sci. (In press)

IUCN/UNEP/WWF/FAO/Unesco. 1980. World conservation strategy: living resources conservation for sustainable development. Gland, Switzerland, World Conservation Union (IUCN).

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