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More attention to animal genetic resources


D. Steane


The author is Animal Production Officer, Livestock Production Systems Group, Animal Production and Health Division, FAO, Rome, Italy

The whole area of global resources has, at last, begun to receive a level of attention more in keeping with its importance, particularly following the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development meeting in Brazil last year.

The importance of animal genetic resources for domestic livestock is finally being recognized, although the attention it has gained so far is less than that paid to some other aspects of animal production such as feeding, management and health. This is possibly attributable to several factors:

· there are only about seven to ten animal species that provide over 90 percent of the food eaten by humans;

· people are more familiar with these species but are not aware of the vast array of variation that exists between breeds throughout the world.

These species are usually "farmed" in some way and the variation is a result of selection - much of it natural but some obviously directed by humans. There is nothing wrong with selection carried out by humans - nothing "unnatural" about humans choosing animals that best suit their needs in the specific environment in which they live.

Indeed, further development and selection is still much required in order to satisfy human needs - of course, genetics is only one, and often not the major, tool that can ensure greater efficiency in the provision of human food. However, like all other resources, it needs careful and proper maintenance and utilization (the old term "husbandry" really summarizes the activity).

There have been many mistakes made in attempts to improve animal efficiency - one major error being the perception that output reflects efficiency - hence the considerable use of "exotics" to improve local indigenous populations. Output was often the criterion for which a breed was imported, and it was only later that survival, health, reproductive rate, feed quality and availability became obvious parameters for consideration.

Clearly, cross-breeding has a valuable role in animal production and the provision of adequate food, but it must be carefully planned as well as properly organized and operated if the genetic advantages are to be exploited effectively - such plans automatically ensure the maintenance and use of the genetic resources available.

In this edition, there are three quite different articles reporting on genetic resources:

· One identifies an animal that has a very specific role in a very specific environment in which almost no other domestic species is able to live. At the edge of this environment, yaks are crossed with cattle but neither resource is regarded as dispensable. This article also serves to show the effect that the political situation can have on a resource.

· Another article identifies a major cattle resource within which there is considerable variation and which, at present, appears to be cross-bred on a continuous back-crossing basis to the exotic ("upgrading" is often used, but it is a debatable term). Only time will tell whether this is the best route and one trusts that the schemes described include components for maintaining stocks of the different local types of yellow cattle. There is an urgent need to characterize these local breeds.

· A third article identifies a specific breed that was almost lost as a resource as a result of artificial insemination (AI) and indiscriminate crossing. As current evidence shows, these techniques were not aimed at improving the indigenous breed that, thanks to the insight and preservationist attitude of a few individuals (the author of the article included), is now maintained and is performing efficiently for present-day requirements.

These articles, all referring to animals within the richly endowed Asian region, give an insight into FAO's role in the future maintenance of domestic animal diversity. The Asia and the Pacific Region has over 900 breeds, identified across the six species or subspecies (buffaloes, cattle, goats, horses, pigs and sheep). The role of FAO has most recently been guided by the recommendations of an Expert Consultation on the Global Management of Animal Genetic Resources, convened by the Organization in April 1992 (reports in English, French and Spanish and proceedings in English are available on request from FAO).

The recommendations of this group of 29 world authorities cover the urgent need to define a global programme and to indicate priorities. These recommendations, which are comprehensive, are not the subject of this comment. A management entity was recommended, as was its function, while the experts concluded that FAO should provide such an activity with a consultative body involving many of the relevant disciplines and groups.

Aspects of breed information and characterization, together with a global network, were discussed. The global breed survey, started by FAO in 1991, continues to provide a valuable basis for the Global Animal Genetic Data Bank in Rome as well as for the classification of risk status. With regard to this second function, the Organization has compiled a World Watch List, the first of which will be published shortly. Renewed efforts to obtain more comprehensive data are to be made and surveys on Camelidae and poultry are just commencing.

Obviously, information and, from that, the identification of resources at risk require further action if those resources are not to be lost - various methods were discussed at the Consultation. Many endangered breeds will require the implementation of positive selection programmes, which should necessarily be carried out in the indigenous environment: there is usually little point in selecting breeds under conditions very different from those in which their progeny are to perform. Breeding schemes both for pure breeding and continued cross-breeding will be developed, since the effective use of such schemes is required to maintain the resource.

Of course, not all breeds/strains can be maintained for all time. Genetic diversity is needed but it can and should be in different packages from those at present. However, the main reason for the demise of some breeds will be the lack of finance to maintain the entire resource. Priorities must clearly be developed: the Consultation provided some and encouraged further action for this purpose. DNA analysis and genetic distancing can assist by providing more objective data on which decisions should be made, although these disciplines of course cannot be the sole criterion - social, historical and political aspects must always be considered.

Immediate activities include the designation of a Special Action Programme by FAO. The formation of a global centre is well under way while missions are to take place in 1993 in order to formulate specific proposals for action in different regions of the world and, subsequently, to present the proposals to potential funding sources.

Already, Japan has provided an initial trust fund for a specific Asian project that is well in keeping with the aims and objectives recommended by the 1992 Expert Consultation on the Global Management of Animal Genetic Resources and accepted by FAO. This will assist in the important work of identifying breeds, assessing risk status, characterizing breeds and providing action to ensure the maintenance and use of the rich source of genetic diversity found in this region. Naturally, this is regarded as just the first step in what must be a worldwide programme to be tackled urgently so as to ensure the maintenance of global resources for providing future generations with food, fur, skins, draught power and fuel.

The world has become more conscious of the need to maintain its resources; it now needs to provide the means by which this can be achieved.

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