Broadening traits of importance: changing breeding goals and selection indices
During the last few decades, there have been remarkable improvements in a narrow range of performance characteristics - e.g., yield, meat/fat ratios, weight gain, feed efficiency - but at the expense of genetic diversity (and the creation of other problems discussed elsewhere). In the US dairy industry the effective genetic size of the Holstein herd was only 60 animals (100 is considered the threshold for genetic diversity), despite a population in 2004 of 3.7 million. In Jerseys and Brown Swiss it was only 31 and 32 animals respectively. In swine, the numbers were each of 71, 74, and 61 animals for the Yorkshire, Hampshire, and Duroc breeds (Gura, 2007). It is often a source of pride (and profitability) in genetics companies that a limited number of their animals have their genes widely spread through the population. However, optimal conditions and high degrees of expensive management are required for high performance, with resilience and disease resistance problems a consequence. High performance genetics don't work well in low input systems (Tauta et al., 2012). All this means that changing the training of breeders is a necessity (see Efficiency) and also the purposes of breed associations. At this stage, the financial problems of high performance farming are also being clarified, which contributes to the need to change objectives of breeding programs.
For many years, disease resistance was not a priority breeding objective in many programs. Yield should no longer be the major preoccupation because yield increases typically now result in social, economic and environmental dislocations. If at this stage of transition we're reducing livestock populations and consumption (see Goal 2, Demand-supply Coordination) and have a broader conception of efficiency, we no longer need to focus on yield.
Norway and Sweden for example have embraced selection indexes that have included the lowly heritable traits related to fertility and health for many years. Geneticists with the breeding organizations in Scandinavia have been permitted to monitor pedigree diversity systematically because of less competitive pressure. The Scandinavian countries have red dairy cattle with slightly less genetic gain for production compared to the global Holstein breed, but less accumulation of genetic relationships. (Gura, 2007)
The European Forum of Farm Animal Breeders is actively animating new breeding goals and selection indices, currently running a series of sessions with case studies of "green" breeding programs in Europe, particularly those with an emphasis on climate-friendly breeding. For example, the Norwegian Red dual purpose breed is selected for 40 traits. The breeding program was established in 1935 and is controlled by farmers. It is the main cattle breed in Norway for both meat and milk. They report improvements in a wide range of characteristics with direct and indirect positive environmental effects. This represents an advance over what's happening in Canada, however, some of this European work is limited because the focus is sometimes primarily on breed characteristics, rather than how the breed fits effectively into a sustainable production program.
Given the recent history of breeding, this is a challenging transition, especially because sustainable objectives add more components with attendant compromises among objectives and optimization challenges. As discussed under Efficiency, using agroecological principles is important for defining objectives and informing selection indices (Phocas et al., 2016a,b).
What is needed now is breeding that focuses on metabolic efficiency, physical robustness in low-input systems including minimal housing, minimal resource extraction, feeding things humans can't eat, adaptability in the face of climate variability, disease resistance, fertility, longevity, and multipurpose performance. The latter objective is particularly important to reduce the early killing of males which represents a huge inefficiency in the system (see Phocas et al., 2016b; also Goal 5, Reducing Food Waste, Efficiency, Deadstock Disposal). The genetics industry solution to this problem is sexed semen, but the use of it reinforces the focus on a narrow range of high performance traits. In the shift to a wider range of traits of focus, the role of sexed semen would have to be re-assessed.
Governments need to make changes in a few areas to encourage the shift (see also Goal 3, Public Research, Efficiency):
- Provincial and federal grants to Canada's 8 agricultural and 5 veterinary schools for animal breeding-related research needs to be tied to these objectives; this includes both direct provincial contributions and competitive research grant processes operated by research agencies with federal and provincial money
- The Farm Products Council of Canada must direct beef, pork, poultry and egg marketing agencies to change the breeding research objectives associated with the distribution of research funds arising from their check-off fees; the Council must also adapt its rules for creating new Promotion and Research Agencies to reflect these breeding priorities. Similarly, the Canadian Dairy Council must alter research program objectives. The federal government could impose the changes, based on legislative authority for these Councils, if they were reluctant.
- In the Animal Pedigree Act, the purposes (Article 3a) are to promote breed improvement, and Article 15(2)(c) states that a breed association may make by-laws: "respecting performance standards that animals must meet as a prerequisite to their registration or identification, as the case may be, by the association". Both these provisions should be amended to reflect the need for improvements based on genetic diversity and production sustainability. Animals, embryos and semen not in compliance would not be registered. The Minister would have the right to terminate any breed association not in compliance (Article 58).
Changes to Health of Animals Act and Regulations
Following on recommendations of an expert panel (as discussed under Efficiency), changes are likely required to the Act and Regulations. For regulations, there are likely to be additional conditions attached to AI requirements including to section 119 and 160ff on permitting. For any province with rules on AI permits, comparable changes would also be implemented.
Changes to veterinary biological approvals (Regulations, sections 120 ff) are addressed under Goal 4.
Changes to transport of animals (Regulations sections 136ff) are addressed under Goal 9, Human relations with animals.
Pay farmers to keep heritage breeds
In the EU, agri-environmental payment schemes can include traditional crop varieties and endangered animal breeds (originally under Regulations 1257/99 and 1750/99), typically available to both conventional and organic farmers (Sanders et al., 2011). Per head payments are the most likely and setting the rates would be one of the design challenges. The farmer would need to be linked to a recognized heritage breed conservation organization to assure heritage breed status and qualify for payments. There might also be geographic considerations, both related to the traditional range of the breed, or to assure recovery and survival by raising the breed in many different locales. Scale is also a consideration, given that heritage breeds are typically held on smaller, more ecological diverse, farms. Larger operations might not be eligible depending on the role of the breed in overall farm design, stage of sustainable transition, and finances. Payments could also be provided to collaborations rather than just individual farmers. Such payments set the stage for ecological goods and services under Redesign (see also Goal 5, Sustainable Foods).
Support marketing of heritage animal products
With heritage breeds included in sustainable protocols, their products can also be part of marketing supports for organizations (including co-ops) marketing sustainable foods (see Goal 5, Sustainable food, Substitution). Marketing efforts would have to be tightly linked to breed associations, heritage breed organizations, and recovery plans to ensure that demand is in line with population realities. Markets might also be linked to agri-tourism opportunities, creating a niche, but potentially lucrative, market from which some of the profits could be cycled into conservation work.
Heritage breeds also lend themselves to a controlled territorial designation approach, used commonly in Europe, and protected under specific conditions in the trade deals. Examples from Europe include Bresse chicken in France and the Schwäbisch-Hällische pig in Germany (FAO, 2015). Only Quebec and BC currently have the regulatory architecture for this, connected to legislation that includes the regulation of organic production. In Quebec, under the Loi sur les appellations réservées et les termes valorisants there are labels for lamb from Charlevoix and cheese from the Canadienne cow. Regulations specify the conditions under which a program can be established. In BC, the Food and Agricultural Products Classification Act allows for protected labels that meet specific requirements, although it doesn't appear to be used for any heritage breeds at the moment.
This approach would work when the animals are being reared in the region in which they originated, and met specific breeding, production, processing and marketing protocols. They could be sold outside the region. The animals could also be reared in other parts of the country, but could not likely participate in the marketing program. Which provinces should enact legislation comparable to BC and Quebec depends on their history of heritage animals, the nature of the animal itself and its products, and also potentially how and if the province / territory regulates organic production separately from federal regulation (see Goal 5, Sustainable Food, Efficiency).
This kind of program could also be linked to public sector procurement (see Goal 3, Food in Public Institutions).
Control exports of embryos and semen
It is significantly cheaper and less risky to export embryos and semen than live breeding stock. International efforts to protect indigenous breeds in many parts of the world are compromised by the focus on high performance genetics imported from countries like Canada. Cross-breeding of international exotic genetics with local breeds has been identified as part of the erosion process, with recommendations that exotic genetics only be used very strategically after careful consideration of the impacts on local farming (high performance genetics often only work in particular settings that can not necessarily be replicated by small scale and subsistence farmers) and local breeds (cf. Köhler-Rollefson, 2004). Using existing permitting requirements under the Health of Animals Regulations, the CFIA will have to regulate exports to comply with international agreements on AnGR. If the exporter can not demonstrate that the traits being exported are consistent with AnGR protection and national objectives in the country of import, than a permit should be denied. This is likely to happen in cases where the exports are to private breeders and firms whose actions don't necessarily align with the conservation objectives of the importing country. For this to be effective, Canada has to be a full participant in the Global Plan of Action (FAO, 2007) so that knowledge is shared readily about each nation's plans and the global movement of animal genetics.
Shift focus of cryopreservation banks
AAFC's Animal Genetic Resources Collection is undoubtedly underfunded and understaffed relative to the scale of the problem. Most of the initiatives proposed here are designed to strengthen in-situ preservation, widely viewed as the most important approach. However, there is definitely a need for cryopreservation, but as the shift progresses away from high performance genetics, the collection needs to shift. As highlighted under Current Approaches, high performance genetics dominate the collection, in part because of the strength of firms, breeders and organizations in this breeding area. With more funding to support heritage breed organizations, and shifts in breeder foci, more heritage genetics should be made available to the Resource Collection, and less high performance genetics. It may even be feasible at this stage to decrease the high performance collection, given that retaining them will be far less necessary than exists in the industrial production model which at this stage is shrinking. Given these shifts, current budgets may be sufficient.