FAO in North America
 

In Focus

A Gateway to Biodiversity in Agriculture: Animal Genetic Resources

Animal Genetic Resources (AnGR) are the biological building blocks for livestock development, and are vital to food security and sustainable rural development. The value of these resources, however, has been poorly understood and their management neglected, resulting in significant erosion of genetic diversity.  In 2007, FAO published the State of the World’s Animal Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, which documented the diversity and status of breeds and provided an overview of the contribution of animals to human livelihoods. Following the release of this report, a Global Plan of Action (GPA) for AnGR was adopted by member countries in late 2007, aimed at sustainably assessing, managing and conserving global breed stocks. FAO facilitates the implementation of the GPA by maintaining the Domestic Animal Diversity Information System (DAD-IS) that allows for the monitoring of breed numbers, and through supporting efforts of its member countries. Domestic animals provide not only food and fibre, but also contribute to the labor needs and cultural identity of people around the world. Most diversity is found in developing countries; however, the composition and diversity of breeds is changing as diets and production systems shift. During a recent workshop on AnGR in Washington, DC, we had the chance to speak with Irene Hoffmann, Chief of the Animal Genetic Resources Branch at FAO. She provided some insights about the state of AnGR and future directions.

Irene HoffmannWhat are the biggest challenges facing AnGR?

During the process of developing the GPA, countries assessed their own needs, which vary immensely. The resulting GPA is the common denominator – a framework consisting of four strategic priority areas under which individual nations can form specific management plans. A commonly mentioned  hurdle in conserving animal genetic resources lies in the low level of political awareness around this issue. University curricula and national committees are helping to bridge this knowledge gap.

What risks are associated with losing breeds?

While researchers have explored traits through breeding and genetic technologies, the “packaging” of genes in different breeds – the composition, arrangement and expression of genes in all its complexity – is extraordinarily difficult to replicate. Moreover, the applicability of innovations in biotechnology research to developing countries is still unclear. Adequate resources to develop or incorporate products of research may not be present.

What implications do AnGR hold for climate change adaptation?

Local breeds, particularly in developing countries where the greatest variety exists, harbor traits adapted to certain environmental conditions. Although few “hard” research results exist, some genetic basis must exist for these animals to survive and reproduce in their harsh local conditions, and could supply necessary genetic variation as climate regimes shift. More research on adaptation is necessary, and some work is already under way on commercial breeds, such as Holstein dairy cattle in the United States and certain breeds of cattle in Latin America that possess a gene influencing the structure  of hair coats and associated body temperature regulation.

Any parting thoughts about AnGR?

Livestock being high in the food chain have many complex relationships to other components of ecosystems. AnGR are an entry point to discussing broader issues of biodiversity resources that are necessary for food and agriculture, and human wellbeing  in general. They are a critical component that needs to be put in an ecosystem context. Animal-related diseases are an example of why we need to think about biology in a holistic sense. Domestic animals have such close connections with humans, and therefore interact with us also on the level of diseases and pests. In this respect, how we manage livestock systems has a very real impact on human health and well-being. We need to work with and not against biology, integrating biodiversity more into our agricultural systems.