There is a growing concern that action is needed on the issue of conservation of farm animal genetic resources. Concern in Canada surrounds the narrowing genetic base of farm animal species that are the basis of our country's production of meat, milk, eggs and fibre, or use for recreation. The loss of valuable animal genetic resources worldwide is accelerating because of various national and international problems and the introduction of foreign breeds without regard to local animal populations.
We need to consider the conservation of farm animal genetic resources as insurance for our animal industries for the current and future changes in the environment, market demands and selection goals.
The purpose of this monograph is to provide background on the need and importance of the conservation of farm animal genetic resources, and to generate interest and ongoing commitment.
Animal genetic resources are recognized today as being important to efforts that are designed to maintain and enhance the competitiveness of Canadian agriculture on domestic and international markets. They are a vital and fundamental source of material for the development of domesticated animals with differing characteristics to meet future needs.
Footnote: Genetic resources refers to organisms from which the genes needed by breeders and other scientists can be derived; while germplasm comprises the tissue, semen, eggs, embryos, or juvenille or mature animals useful in breeding, research, and conservation efforts (NRC, 1993).
The conservation of genetic resources encompasses two views: utilization and preservation (NRC, 1993).
The utilizationist's primary concern is the immediate usefulness of available genetic resources to improve animal populations. Descendants of animals with documentable, unique biological characteristics are to be maintained for future use. The loss of breeds as distinct entities is not generally a concern, as long as the genes that make these breeds potentially useful are retained in commercial stocks.
The preservationist's primary objective is long-term conservation of genetic resources for future use. This view emphasizes the value of preserving the widest possible spectrum of genetic diversity to be prepared for unpredictable changes or future needs. The greatest possible number of breeds are to be preserved as purebreds.
These views are not irreconcilable. The challenge is to strike a balance between the two, with regard to funding and activities, within the research community specifically and in the agriculture industry in general. Conservation efforts protect irreplaceable animal genetic resources from the commercial selection pressures which inevitably lead to a narrowing of the genetic base in the short term. In essence, conservation represents an insurance policy for Canada's animal industries, ensuring that genetic diversity is available to our producers, breeders and researchers in the future.
Most Canadian crops and domestic animals were brought here from abroad and that their genetic base in Canada was therefore narrow from the start. For many years, it was possible to draw upon biological resources from foreign countries to meet changes in our own agriculture, but these traditional sources are rapidly eroding.
Modern agricultural methods have led to a further reduction in the number of breeds and lines in use, resulting in vulnerability due to narrowing of the genetic base. The extent of genetic erosion and vulnerability varies from species to species and from region to region. For example, the global commercial poultry gene pool has greatly diminished in recent years due to industry selection/breeding practices.
In Canada, the conservation of animal genetic resources has been limited. Consequently, a knowledge base needs to be developed among farmers, agricultural professionals and the public. Canada harbours valuable genetic resources in the form of domesticated animals and plants bred for Canadian conditions, and modified microorganisms. While some of these are preserved in farmers' fields and in natural reserves, others must be consciously preserved as part of a genetic resources conservation system. Canada has the scientific capabilities to develop the knowledge base necessary for effective preservation and conservation of biological resources.
The preparation of this monograph, "Canadian Farm Animal Genetic Resources Conservation: A Plan for the Future," represents one of the first steps of an initiative to assure that Canada maintains the genetic diversity of its farm animals as the basis to provide for continued opportunity for animal improvements, agricultural competitiveness, and the preservation of Canada's social/cultural heritage. It represents a commitment to maintaining biodiversity, outlines a national strategy and shows present and potential networks.