Let’s understand, utilise and conserve the indigenous cattle breeds, says Oliver Hanotte.

Olivier Hanotte

Livestock is and has been intertwined with African societies for centuries. They provide nutrition, labour, transport and fulfil major socio-cultural roles. It is estimated that 70% of Africa’s rural poor keep livestock and some 200M people rely on these animals for their livelihoods. Indigenous livestock are not only adapted to diverse African agro-ecological production systems – they are also unique and responsive genotypes shaped by the needs of African farmers.

The demand for livestock products is expected to increase with population growth, urbanisation and changing consumer demands. This presents a unique opportunity, but also an increasing threat for indigenous breeds.

Indeed, African cattle represent the logical starting point for improving of the productivity of the livestock sector on the continent. In the same way that the diversity of locally adapted European breeds was the source of highly productive milk and beef breeds of the northern hemisphere, African livestock diversity represents a valuable genetic resources waiting to be tapped.

There is, however, an increasing perception that the solution behind productivity improvement of the livestock sector in sub-Saharan Africa is through crossbreeding of local breeds with exotic ones; for example through the importation of semen and production of crossbreeds. The solution is attractive as it may combine the advantages of both worlds, local adaptation with high productivity.

But the solution is also a short sighted one that relies on the availability of the pure, locally adapted genotypes, which may rapidly disappear if they are not conserved, or we may see their genetic make-up increasingly diluted.

What is the alternative solution? First, we need a paradigm shift in our perspective and accept that contrary to the traditional thinking, African chicken, cattle, goat and sheep represent an unique genetic resource for improvement of productivity; after all they have produced, survived and fed millions of people across history.

Second, we need to invest much more on the understanding of the genetic adaptive attributes of African livestock. In other words, we need to apply genomics revolution technologies to the indigenous breeds and in parallel embark on large scale phenotype recording programs. African livestock need and deserve much more in the way of long term research investments.

Third, we need to respond to immediate demands and recognise that there is no ‘quick fix’ solution. Yes, European-African crossbreeding can be utilised for short-term delivery but only if this is undertaken in parallel with well thought out breeding improvement programmes.

Finally, we need to realise that we are racing against time. African livestock diversity is shrinking. The world needs to wake up now and support the development of in vitro African livestock biobanks before it is too late for conservation, further utilisation and characterisation activities that will help Africa and the world for centuries to come.

About Olivier Hanotte

Olivier Hanotte, a molecular geneticist from Belgium, joined the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) in 1995 after a post-doc at the University of Leicester, UK, in the field of livestock and wildlife genetic diversity, and led the Improving Animal Genetics Resource Characterization project. In January 2009 he joined the University of Nottingham as Professor of Population and Conservations Genetics. He is member of the editorial board of Animal Genetics and The Journal of Animal Breeding and Genetics.

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