For more than thirteen years, Professor Appolinaire Djikeng has strived to show the link between livestock development and human health.
In this interview, which he kindly granted to Julien Chongwang from SciDev.Net, he describes the importance of genetic improvement for the livestock sector in Africa and encourages decision-makers, universities and researchers on the continent to grant more attention and room for this discipline to help achieve better food security.
You and the Centre for Tropical Livestock Genetics and Health (CTLGH) have just been named one of the top 10 people who are revolutionizing the UK healthcare industry. Tell us first about this Centre…
CTLGH is a Centre that was born from the collaboration between three institutions. First there is the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, where I am based. In this University, we have the School of Veterinary Medicine, and within that is the Roslin Institute where the first sheep was cloned nearly 25 years ago. Then there is Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC), which is interested in the activities of the rural world: agriculture in general and breeding in particular. Finally, there is the International Livestock Research Institute, which is located in Kenya and Ethiopia. These three institutions are the founding partners of the Centre that I lead, with research facilities in Scotland, Kenya and Ethiopia.
What prompted this partnership and the creation of this Centre?
We have seen that there is a proven desire on the continent to accelerate the development of livestock farming. There are four components needed to achieve this: animal health, animal nutrition, genetic improvement and funding. The Centre was therefore born from the desire to make genetic improvements to livestock production in Africa.
Our Centre has the mission of developing the genomic tool and other innovations to accelerate genetic improvement in livestock farming in Africa. We have a specific focus on improving the livestock systems of smallholder farmers in Africa. I can say that we are the first institution in the world that invests in this way; developing methodologies and innovations that will allow them to have animals that are both healthy and productive.
What are the main works that have earned you the recognition you have just received?
The University of Edinburgh is ranked among the top 20 Universities in the world. So this recognition in the recent Decade of Health campaign reflects the scientific power that we have as well as the specific genetic improvement research that the Centre does.
The Centre has two main targeted sectors: the poultry sector and the dairy sector.
For poultry, we are developing methodologies that allow us to appreciate and conserve genetic diversity in Africa. Our researchers have managed to isolate the stem cells from the hen and store them. We can then produce hens in the future from these cells. This means that even species that are threatened with extinction can now be conserved.
One of the Centre’s cattle projects focuses on East Coast fever, which is a disease that poses enormous problems for livestock in East and Southern Africa. CTLGH scientists are building their understanding of the genetic basis of tolerance to this disease. By continuing with our progress, we hope to make genetic improvements so that cows are can be in an environment where they can become infected, without suffering disease.
What is the place of genetic modifications in your operations?
First of all, genetics is not about changes in the genome as people might think. It’s about putting an animal in a very appropriate environment. In Africa, some cows are very small, others large, some more aggressive, etc. You may also find that in a herd all cows are aggressive except a few. It comes down to genetic diversity. If we can develop methodologies that allow us to identify those cows that have genetic traits that allow them to live in environments that are very hot, or very cold, or full of disease threats without getting ill, that’s genetic improvement.
However, when possible and necessary, we do guided crossings to select for positive characteristics or traits. Because genetic improvement comes down to making crosses, having traits that come from those crosses and being able to determine whether those traits are more like the parent male or the parent female. We also look to identify genetic markers for key traits, that will allows us to consistently produce animals that will have the trait that we are looking for.
Usually, this is a decision that farmers make whenever their animal gives birth. By asking, for example, whether he should keep a particular male animal because his genetic potential is high or whether he should send him to the slaughterhouse because he will not be as fertile or productive as other males. Genetics allow us to make these decisions with science that is much more accurate.
How is this done in practice?
For example, there are some cows that have evolved over centuries to not have a lot of hair. This is because there is a natural selection, which ensures that in a very hot environment their lack of hair keeps them cool and better able to withstand the heat. We can now use the genetic tool, which is much more precise, to produce a cow with the right genes to help it cope better when raised in environments with high temperature.
Genetic modification is a science and technology that exists. However, its use is tightly regulated and we will only be able to use this technology in animals the outside world once the laws allow it. For example, Dolly was the first sheep to be cloned by scientists at the Roslin Institute nearer 25 years ago and the technology behind cloning has now become routine in research.
How do you perceive the resistance to genetic improvements and modifications that we observe in sub-Saharan Africa, which is the primary target of your work?
There is a lot of resistance to these technologies because they are not are well known and implemented here. But we are not dogmatic about making genetic modifications. If it’s possible to make genetic modifications, we do them. But we would much like to enlighten public opinion and gain their approval. The public needs to know exactly what we are doing.
There are countries in Africa where these conversations are already taking place. This is the case in Kenya, where the subject is being reviewed at parliamentary level. This is also the case of South Africa, Burkina Faso, Uganda and Ethiopia. I believe that politicians and decision-makers need to be engaged much more so that they understand the importance of these genetic improvements. There has to be this dialogue so that people are able to identify the innovations and technologies that are appropriate for them to solve the problems that are theirs.
What is the impact of your work in sub-Saharan Africa?
In terms of research and technology transfer, we have made it possible to preserve genetic diversity in poultry. That’s very important. We also work to strengthen of institutional capacity and knowledge among researchers. Our Centre has helped to set up the African Animal Breeding Academy, which will help to create a network south of the Sahara and allow genetic improvement to be done in partnership and collaboration between many countries. In all genetic improvement programmes, the impact comes as you progress. For example, in Europe and North America, it took 40 to 50 years for milk production to increase significantly. It is therefore a long-term commitment and our Centre is only five years old.
We are also trying to build a foundation for a more solid genetic improvement in order to correct the mistakes of the past. In the past, genetic improvement was simply reduced to imports of elite strains of livestock from Europe or elsewhere.
What message would you have for African decision-makers?
They have to work a lot with colleagues from research institutions and universities. In our Universities, there is a lot of knowledge and the potential is huge. There are well-trained people who are ready to give good advice to decision makers. As we have seen with the COVID-19 pandemic, all governments are making decisions on the advice of researchers. If we can listen to researchers for this pandemic, we must also listen to them for the development of livestock breeding.
Regarding the acceptance of genetic improvement, our universities and research institutions should be involved in this conversation. Very often, people resist certain concepts because they don’t understand it and the benefits it can bring.
There can be no development in a country unless there is agricultural development. And if we do good research for agricultural development, we would be doing a great service to our countries and to the people.
This interview was published in the Sub Saharan African edition of SciDev.Net on 13 November 2020. To read the original article in French click here