You may remember we nibbled a Science paper entitled Time to Tap Africa’s Livestock Genomes which got a lot of traction in the press a few weeks ago. It has also generated an interesting discussion at the DAD-Net forum, set off by the following contribution by Dr Ilse Köhler-Rollefson of the League for Pastoral Peoples and Endogenous Livestock Development, which she has kindly allowed us to reproduce here.
Congratulations on this article – it is certainly great to have these issues raised in a high profile scientific journal! However, after reading the summary about it presented in the BBC interview, I am a bit worried about the notion of the need to “tap Africa’s animal genetic resources” before they have become extinct. For one, they are already being “tapped” by African pastoralists — and have been tapped for hundreds or thousands of years — to enable survival in inhospitable areas. One crucial aspect of pastoralist livestock is the ability to walk for ever and thereby access and then ingest and metabolize vegetation that would otherwise be of no use to humans. Their contribution to food security is thus enormous. Unfortunately, to my knowledge, no scientific research has ever focused on “walkability.”
But what we urgently need to realise is that many of the wonderful characteristics of African and other pastoralist livestock are not a question of genetics, but of learned behaviour, as Saverio Kraetli has shown in his seminal studies of WoDaaBe cattle breeders in Niger. It is therefore a fallacy to believe that we can “fix” certain weaknesses of Western or high-performance breeds by introducing the genes of African livestock into them.
This does not make it less urgent to conserve pastoralist livestock, as food security for people in marginal areas remains a major concern. In their Biocultural Community Protocol, the Samburu have testified how replacement of the Red Massai sheep with Dorper has undermined their drought resistance.
African livestock breeds and their unique traits can only be conserved in living systems, using agroecosystem approaches as spelled out in one of the Strategic Priorities for Action of the Global Plan of Action for Animal Genetic Resources. Consequently we need enabling policies for livestock keepers, much more than additional research at the genome level — which would be unable to address complex traits such as walkability.