Previous genetic improvement programmes—Lessons

Many attempts to improve livestock in the tropics have been made, mainly by ‘upgrading’ with temperate breeds in crossbreeding. Improved livestock have been successfully produced or introduced in favourable areas of the tropics, e.g. in some highland areas. However, in maritime climates and in relatively intense peri-urban production systems, many attempts have failed due to introduction of breeds not adapted to tropical conditions, or due to lack of long-term strategies for the breeding programme to be sustainable.

Payne and Hodges(1997) thoroughly reviewed the situation as regards cattle breeding; Kosgey et al. (2006); Kosgey and Okeyo (2007); Mueller (2006) and Peacock et al. (2011)have reported on success and failures for small ruminants, while Rege et al. (2011) have discussed what science can achieve with regard to pro-poor animal improvement and breeding. In fact, many case studies exist from which lessons can be learnt from failures[CS 1.3 by Mpofu]; [CS 1.35 by Shreeram Prakash], and from successfulprogrammes [CS 1.2 by Mpofu]; [CS 1.5 by Kahi]; [CS 1.40 by Chacko]. Analysing the reasons for failures in different reports reveals some common problems (see Kosgey and Okeyo, 2007), whereas success stories may give possible ways forward.

The major problems are:

  • Breeding programmes have been too complex in terms of logistics, technology and other resources without considering the infrastructure required [CS 1.3 by Mpofu].
  • Indiscriminate crossbreeding of indigenous breeds with exotic breeds without enough consideration of environmental conditions for production. Lack of plans on how to maintain a suitable level of ‘upgrading’ or on how to maintain the pure breeds for future use in crossbreeding contribute to non-sustainability. High levels of upgrading have generally led to animals with lower resistance to diseases and impaired ability to withstand environmental stress [CS 1.31 by Philipsson].
  • Lack of analysis of the different socio-economic and cultural roles that livestock play in each situation, usually leading to wrong breeding objectives and neglect of the potentials of various indigenous breeds of livestock. Examples of these problems are illustrated in several case studies linked to this module [CS 1.12 by Chagunda].
  • Lack of comprehensive approaches to design simple, yet effective breeding strategies in low-input environments.
  • Lack of awareness of what genetic improvement schemes may achieve in both the short and long terms with different methods and species.
  • Lack of maintenance and promotion of breed standards (uniformity, colour and body conformation),and small population sizes limiting the selection, multiplication and stabilization of crossbreds to form synthetic breeds. Nondescript breeds are being developed because more importance is given to their economic, rather than phenotypic, characteristics [CS 1.40 by Chacko].

Success stories include some important features,such as:

  • Introduction of productive breeds from other tropical regions. The most striking examples are found in Brazil, where indicus cattle have become dominant beef producers for both domestic use and for the export market.
  • Developing a synthetic breed initially based on crossbreeding several breeds to find a suitable mix of indigenous and exotic genes. A well-known example is the development of the Sunandini cattle in Kerala, south-west India, from crossing local zebu cattle with Brown Swiss, Jersey and and consistent selection within the crossbred population[CS 1.40 by Chacko].In this way the most valuable genes for the environment in question are conserved in a continuously developing ‘breed’.
  • Farmer participation and support of investors. No breeding programme will be sustainable unless there is adequate farmer involvement. Similarly, it is difficult to develop breeding programmes without policy support and financial resources. However, it is equally important that the development programmes have exit strategies that they can sustain on their own by being profitable to thefarmers and the society [CS by Ojango et al].