Imported Cattle Threaten African Livestock Diversity & Continent's Food Supply

niger cattle photo

photo: Joris-Jan van den Boom via flickr

Even though locally-adapted, diversified agriculture and farming is a key component of both food security today and in a warmer more climate-stressed future, the Big Ag trend is still towards less crop diversity and more uniformity. Here's a perfect example of the downside of that: The International Livestock Research Institute says urgent action is needed to stop the "rapid and alarming loss of genetic diversity" among African cattle, which not only provide food and income for 70% of rural Africans, but also are a storehouse of drought- and disease-resistant characteristics. The cause of the decline: Continued import of foreign cattle, supplanting the local breeds. WATCH VIDEO - Focus Earth: The Food Industry

Experts from the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) told researchers at the 5th African Agriculture Science Week, hosted by the Forum for Agricultural Research in Africa (FARA), that investments are needed now to expand efforts to identify and preserve the unique traits, particularly in West Africa, of the continent's rich array of cattle, sheep, goats and pigs developed over several millennia but now under siege. They said the loss of livestock diversity in Africa is part of a global 'livestock meltdown'. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, some 20 percent of the world's 7616 livestock breeds are now viewed as at risk.

Abdou Fall, leader of ILRI's livestock diversity project for West Africa: "Africa's livestock are among the most resilient in the world yet we are seeing the genetic diversity of many breeds being either diluted or lost entirely."

IRLI highlights one example of cross-breeding cattle prioritizing short-term benefits that may be sacrificing crucial disease-resistance traits:

Careless Interbreeding Jeopardizes Age-Old Disease Resistance
Over thousands of years the humpless short- and longhorn cattle of Central and West Africa have lived and evolved with parasites and insects that spread disease, and developed natural ways to survive many diseases--including trypanosomosis, which kills 3-7 million cattle annually and cost farmers billions of dollars trying to prevent it. These cattle also have great ability to survive harsh climates. But they aren't as productive as European cattle in terms of meat and milk production, as well as draft power. So they are increasingly interbred to try to improve these traits.

IRLI warns of the long-term consequences of this. Fall says, "We have seen in the short-horn humpless breeds native to West and Central Africa indiscriminate slaughter and inattention to careful breeding that has put them on the path to extinction. We must at the very least preserve these breeds either on the farm or in livestock gene banks because their genetic traits could be decisive in the fight against trypanosomosis, while their hardiness could be enormously valuable to farmers trying to adapt to climate change."

More on different of how genetic diversity of African cattle is declining and what can be done to prevent it: ILRI
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