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Lack of genetic diversity threat to livestock

Anyone who has lived on or near a farmyard with chickens is well-aware of the rooster's ability to trumpet the arrival of morning long before the sun peeks over the horizon.

But roosters have been delivering a wake-up call of a different sort lately -- sounding the alarm over the risks inherent with the increasingly narrow gene pool used in commercial agricultural production.

Reuters reports the U.S. broiler industry recently discovered the Ross breed of rooster, which sires as much as 25 per cent of the U.S. broiler chicken supply, had developed a fertility problem.

After investigating why up to 17 per cent of the eggs these roosters fertilized failed to hatch, the breeder, German-based Aviagen, acknowledged an unspecified change made to its genetics boosted growth rates at the expense of fertility.

The problem of roosters too fat to mate was quickly fixed through more genetic tweaking, but this seemingly temporary glitch is having costly effects.

The USDA's chicken production forecast for 2014 released last month predicted only a one per cent increase in poundage from 2013, well below the long-run annual average of four per cent. The agency predicted 2015 production would be up only 2.6 per cent. That's cutting into the country's export potential at a time foreign demand is growing.

The fertility problem exacerbated an already-existing shortage of breeder birds.

According to Reuters, breeders reduced their flocks when a spike in feed prices in 2011 squeezed their profit margins. They have been trying to rebuild their flocks since and are now looking for other options, such as attempting to hatch eggs that would otherwise have been discarded and keeping their laying hens longer.

The shortages are pushing up U.S. chicken prices at a time beef and pork prices are already at record highs.

Canada sources all of its breeding stock from the U.S. and relies solely on the Ross rooster. But industry officials say it has been unaffected -- at least so far. Because of supply management, Canadian hatcheries are able to contract for their hatching eggs up to two years in advance. The industry reports those contracts are being honoured to date. As such, it appears Canadian producers and consumers will be spared any potential supply shock.

But it's a wake-up call nonetheless, flagging commercial agriculture's tendency to put all its eggs in one genetic basket. It's an issue as old as the Irish potato famine, which was caused by an overreliance on a narrow range of varieties, all of which were susceptible to blight.

Ken Richards, retired research manager for genetic resources with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, said in a recent email there are many examples of the effects of genetic diversity loss affecting production in modern agriculture. "One only needs to look at the amount of inbreeding depression occurring in the five major dairy breeds in production in Canada at the present time," he said.

Canada helped draft and implement the Global Plan of Action for the Conservation of Animal Genetic Resources. But one of the challenges facing preservation programs is acquiring sufficient semen and embryos.

"Currently there are about 200 breeds of livestock and poultry in Canada, so the potential genetic diversity is quite large. However, only a handful of these breeds are in sufficient numbers for commercial production," Richards said.

Another challenge is maintaining financial support. Two years ago, the University of Alberta turned to charitable donations to preserve its flock of heritage poultry breeds. Threatened by budget cuts, the university's Poultry Research Centre appealed for public support under an innovative "adopt-a-heritage-chicken" program. Individual donors -- which now number 400 -- pay $150 a year in exchange for receiving 24 dozen eggs over a 10-month period.

This approach has appeal in that it supports the local-food movement and offers urbanites an opportunity to connect with agriculture. But it's questionable if as a society we want to rely on such methods to preserve genetic diversity. The need for such resources is not some nicety, the threat to supply from unforeseen genetic breakdowns is clearly not theoretical.


Laura Rance is editor of the Manitoba Co-operator. She can be reached at 204-792-4382 or by email:

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