Banking Livestock Sperm and Ovaries to Preserve Genetic Diversity

20070924watusi.jpgThe consumption of meat and dairy products is increasing worldwide, but especially so in the so-called developing nations of Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Caribbean. Consequently, the genetic diversity of the world's livestock is decreasing at an alarming rate in those regions. For example, according to a recent report from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) titled "The State of the World’s Animal Genetic Resources," the composition of local breeds in the Vietnamese sow population dropped from 72 percent in the mid 1990s to only 28 percent in 2006. And of those 14 local breeds, five are classified as vulnerable, two are in a critical state, and three are facing extinction.

In response to this situation, the Internation Livestock Research Institute, a nonprofit, nongovernmental organization dedicated to poverty reduction and sustainable development in developing countries, has issued a call for the "rapid establishment of genebanks to conserve the sperm and ovaries of key animals critical for the global population’s future survival."

Why is genetic diversity important? According to ILRI's press release:

Scientists predict that Uganda’s indigenous Ankole cattle—famous for their graceful and gigantic horns—could face extinction within 50 years because they are being rapidly supplanted by Holstein-Friesians, which produce much more milk. During a recent drought, some farmers who had kept their hardy Ankole were able to walk them long distances to water sources, while those who had traded the Ankole for imported breeds lost their entire herds.

While many countries, including the U.S. and those in Europe, maintain well-established genebanks, ILRI's director general, Carlos Seré, says, "Africa has been left wanting and that absence is sorely felt right now because this is one of the regions with the richest remaining diversity and is likely to be a hotspot of breed losses in this century." Seré has outlined a four-step approach to help maintain genetic diversity among the world's livestock:

1. A first strategy is to encourage farmers to keep genetic diversity “on the hoof,” which means maintaining a variety of indigenous breeds on farms. In his speech, Seré called for the use of market-incentives and good public policy that make it in the farmer’s self-interest to maintain diversity.

2. Another way to encourage “keeping it on the hoof,” Seré said, is by allowing greater mobility of livestock breeds across national borders. When it comes to livestock, farmers have to “move it or lose it,” he said. Wider distribution of breeds and access to them makes it less likely that particular breeds and populations will be wiped out by fluctuations in the market, civil strife, natural disasters, or disease outbreaks.

3. The third approach that Seré is championing is a longer term one with great future potential for resource-poor farmers. It goes by the name of “landscape genomics” and it combines advanced genomic and geographical mapping techniques to predict which breeds are best suited to which environments and circumstances around the world.

4. But for landscape genomics—or any of the other approaches—to work, of course, scientists will need a wide variety of livestock genetic diversity to work with. For this reason, the fourth approach Seré is advocating is long-term insurance to “put some in the bank,” by establishing genebanks to store semen, eggs, and embryos of farm animals.

Photograph of Ankole-Watusi cow from Liar's Lake, a breeder of exotic animals in Sparta, Missouri.