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Animal Genetic Resources and Climate Change

GRFA in a Changing Climate

“Climate change, genetic resources, adaptation, food security, sustainability, greenhouse gas emissions, mitigation” These terms were often heard in Lillehammer from 27-29 Jan 2014. 123 scientists and policy-makers from 19 countries had gathered to present latest research results and discuss hot topics concerning genetic resources for food and agriculture in the face of climate change.

The international conference was arranged by four research networks financed by the Nordic Council of Ministers and NordForsk under the Program “Climate Change Impacts, Adaptation and Mitigation in Nordic Primary Industries”, as well as NordGen Farm Animals and NordGen Forest.

Theo Meuwissen, project leader of the “Nordic Research Network on Animal Genetic Resources in the Adaptation to Climate Change” (AnGR-NordicNET) from the Norwegian University of Life Sciences set the stage for the session focused on animal production in a changing climate with a talk outlining the future general challenges and possible solution strategies in livestock production. The main anticipated changes that will impact livestock production in the future are rising temperatures and less predictable weather with more frequent extreme weather events, as well as a rapidly growing global human population. In sum, production conditions are overall probably becoming less favorable, where as the demand for animal products is increasing at a global scale. Naturally, this scenario differs widely depending on the geographic region. Theo Meuwissen highlighted the need to utilize the most efficient tools to generate genetic adaptation to changing cimates and as an integral part of this utilize the genetic variability available within and between breeds.

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Two talks focused on examples from Sub-Saharan Africa. Emilie Zonabend from the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences and the International Livestock Research Institute in Kenya introduced the audience to the challenges that sheep production in Kenya faces. The region is characterized by unpredictable climatic conditions with severe droughts, which are on the rise due to climate change. Native breeds such as the Red Maasai sheep are valued by local farmers for their tolerance of harsh climatic conditions and disease resistance, but exotic breeds such as the Dorper breed from South Africa have been introduced because of their higher productivity during non-drought periods. As a result the Red Maasai sheep are threatened by extinction due to uncontrolled cross-breeding with the exotic Dorper breed. This is troubling in light of climate change and the concomitant anticipated rise in frequency of droughts. Conserving the breed with its ability to withstand drought and disease and simultaneously increasing productivity in this extensive low-external input system is thus a main breeding goal in Red Maasai sheep.

The second Sub-Saharan example was presented by Tadelle Dessie from the International Livestock Research Institute in Ethiopia. He spoke about efforts to improve productivity in native goat breeds, where the challenges are very similar to those in the Red Maasai sheep example. Hopes are that with increasing productivity, not only overall food production will rise, but also that overgrazing and thus land degradation can be curtailed.

Bente Åby, from the Norwegian University of Life Sciences, took a closer look at the situation in the Nordic countries, which are characterized by a much higher percentage of intensive high-external input systems and a cooler and wetter climate than the previous African examples.This region also has to meet an increasing demand of animal products, as a result of a growing population and a shift in consumer preference, while production conditions are changing due to climate change. Higher average temperatures are on one hand predicted to lengthen growing periods and permit the cultivation of new crops, such as high-protein crops like legumes and high quality forages. But on the other hand, it is expected that diseases and pests will expand their ranges, summer droughts along with extreme weather events will become more frequent and overall higher precipitation rates will destroy crops and cause erosion, leaching of nutrients, compaction of soil and complicate harvesting.

In the last decades, meat production as well as import has increased and an efficiency increase across all livestock production was observed. In general, self-sufficiency in livestock products is high, when disregarding feed, but a decreasing trend has been identified. The use of marginal lands for grazing and the use of vegetables and by-products as feed decreased. This implies that livestock production in the Nordic countries is dependent on the import of high-quality feed. Unfortunately, climate change is expected to lead to fluctuating availability and quality, resulting in fluctuating prices, of high quality feed on the international market.. Development of “climate-smart” agriculture in the Nordic countries would imply changes in agricultural practices  to be more resilient to climate change, e.g. by increasing and diversifying  the production of domestically grown feed, in order to be less dependent on the international markets.Moreover, agriculture is responsible for 8-15% of the Greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the Nordic countries. Another goal of “climate-smart” agriculture is therefore to reduce the impact agriculture has on fueling climate change.

Two talks were primarily concerned with mitigation of climate change by reducing the GHG emissions in agriculture. John McEwan, from AgResearch in New Zealand, spoke about using genomic selection to decrease GHG emissions in dual purpose sheep. A recent study revealed that the amount of methane emitted per animal and day or animal and kg dry matter intake is heritable and consistent across time. No evidence was found for an unfavorable correlation with various production traits, like weaning age, and muscle depth and fleece weight at 12 months of age. Current efforts are to define genetic/phenotypic markers for low CH4 emissions, so that this trait can be included as a breeding goal in existing breeding systems. These prospects would likely also apply to populations in the Nordic region.

In the second talk dealing with reduction of GHG emissions, Lotta Rydhmer, from the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, asked whether feed efficiency should be a future breeding goal in dairy cattle. The rationale being that if feed efficiency increases, then the amount of produced methane would decrease per unit product produced. In addition feed efficiency has a significant economic value, making it an obvious candidate for selection in dairy cattle as in other species.  But the potential of ruminants to utilize marginal areas and by-products for production of high quality food was also highlighted, not necessarily contributing to lower GHG emissions.

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At the end of the conference, Irene Hoffman, from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, gave a talk which put the different elements of the impact of climate change on agriculture and food security and the regional differences into perspective. She remarked that a large proportion of the future climates will not actually be novel, but that instead there will be a geographic shift. Thus, genetic resources currently valuable in one region will potentially become of interest in another in the future. Cooperation and sharing of genetic resources at a larger geographic scale than currently being practiced may become imperative.

Across sectors and species, the presentations documented the value of genetic resources as one of the most important resources for adaptation to the future climate changes as well as for mitigating actions.However the conference presentations and discussions also revealed large challenges that lie ahead and dilemmas to be solved.Projections of increased demands for animal derived products are largely based on extrapolating current trends. Presentations and discussions reiterated that from a mitigation point of view, initiatives to modify these trends towards a lower consumption of animal derived products would be a powerful mitigating activity.

Several presentations highlighted the need for increased productivity in the light of human population growth and increased demands for animal derived products, while others pointed out the need for resilience as a key trait in adaptation, particularly to a more variable climate. These factors might be relevant to a differing extent in different species and production systems, but productivity vs. resilience is a key trade-off when discussing strategies for adaptation.

Another dilemma that was discussed, revolves around the lower GHG impact  of poultry and pig production compared to ruminant production. However, poultry and pigs compete for feed resources, that to a large extent can be used for human consumption, whereas ruminants can potentially utilize resources from marginal areas and by-products not useful for human consumption.

Breeding is a very important driving force in adaptation to future production conditions. Breeding has made large contributions to improved efficiency and thus indirectly a smaller GHG impact per unit product. None the less, there is little evidence that animal breeding organizations have considered climate change adaptation in their definition of breeding objectives and breeding schemes.

The conference website under contains most of the presentations of the given talks and a downloadable version of the abstract book. We hope that the conference together with this resource will facilitate research and collaboration on genetic resources in food and agriculture in a changing climate.