The shifting landscape of animal genetic resources in Europe

The EFRP’s Coralie Danchin spoke to SE about how the landscape of animal genetic resources (AnGR) is changing in Europe today.

The European Regional Focal Point for Animal Genetic Resources (ERFP) is the regional platform to support the in situ and ex situ conservation and sustainable use of animal genetic resources (AnGR) and to facilitate the implementation of FAO’s Global Plan of Action for AnGR. Since 2001, ERFP facilitates the collaboration, coordination of work and exchange of information and experience between different European countries and governmental and non-governmental organisations.

Innovation News Network spoke to the EFRP’s Danchin Coralie about how the landscape of animal genetic resources is changing in Europe today.

In a general sense, how would you describe the central challenges facing the sustainable and proper use of AnGR in Europe today?

One of the main issues would be the new reforms to the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) because this could cause serious issues for European farmers if the general rules are towards bigger farms and less environment. Indeed, many EU countries depend a lot upon subsidies, and if it becomes more financially viable for them to grow crops instead of raise sheep, then that is what they will do (rare breeds or not).

In countries such as France and Spain (and indeed others), many farmers work very well with rare breeds, but this can often depend on the scale of the operations taking place. That is, many of the slaughterhouses and so on are meant for large units, and smaller parties simply can’t comply with the necessary rules and regulations which means that while they may not experience any problems selling their products, it is these hurdles which ultimately mean that many of them will give up.

An additional challenge is the fact that many of the rare breeds are hardy breeds, which means that they spend most of their time outdoors. However, in some parts of Europe we are seeing an increase in the number of wolves and bears, which means that farmers are becoming less likely to want to keep their animals outside and, as such, are less likely to continue to farm rare, hardy breeds.

Are there areas of best practice in some countries that can be shared elsewhere?

We have been trying to share best practice via a few projects that have received EU funding – such as a Horizon 2020 project called TREASURE, which looked at the diversity of local pig breeds.

Another H2020 project, GenRes Bridge, aims to strengthen the conservation and sustainable use of genetic resources by bringing three networks together: European Co-operative Programme for Plant Genetic Resources (ECPGR), responsible for crops, European Forest Genetic Resources Programme (EUFORGEN) for forests and European Regional Focal Point for Animal Genetic Resources (ERFP) for animals. The main objective of this project is to come up with a common strategy for genetic resources.

Projects such as these will help to show the EU what should be done. Indeed, through the secretariat, for instance, we are trying to show elements of best practice to other none-EU countries, and if any of those have great ideas then we also want to be able to showcase them to the EU nations as well.

According to the UN FAO, significant knowledge gaps exist in many countries as a result of a lack of capacity in AnGR characterisation, inventory and monitoring. How would you like to see this being addressed in Europe?

This is perhaps not as much of a challenge in Europe as it is elsewhere, such as Africa and Asia. However, it is nevertheless true that there are some European countries (where it is more difficult to access molecular genetics, for instance) which are exhibiting knowledge gaps.

There have been a couple of large projects taking place around genetic resources in recent years, and this has helped. TREASURE is one; another, IMAGE (Innovative Management of Animal Genetic Resources) focuses on the characterisation of the breeds in collections in the gene banks. IMAGE also wants to develop a chip that could be used in all species to characterise breeds at a low price and which can be used by anyone.

Such projects as these have been very helpful, and we hope that the EU will continue to support such initiatives and, what is more, will enable a dialogue with countries that are not part of the EU, so that everybody can benefit from their results.

It has also been highlighted that many countries/regions require public policies in order to improve institutional and organisational structures for the sustainable use and conservation of AnGR at all levels. In this context, what is needed in Europe, and what do you feel needs to be in place in order to achieve these ends?

While I don’t currently have an extremely clear view on what is done at what level due to being relatively new to the secretariat, it is nevertheless clear that this has been something of an issue for the past 20 years or so. While the ERFP network has been useful in trying to build up such institutions throughout Europe, each country is supposed to nominate a national co-ordinator for genetic resources at the FAO, but this is yet to be achieved across the board. However, some 40-50 people attend the ERFP’s general assembly for animal genetic resources, which means people there is interest here.

Perhaps one of the main challenges in this context is a lack of farmers in some countries who work with rare breeds. This is a particular hurdle in some eastern European countries, which may have been told that they need to change to intensive farming. It can be difficult for them to realise the truth of the message coming to them from more western countries that raising rare breeds is actually something they can build an income from. One way of solving this would be to introduce the topic into the agriculture school curriculum so that the message that different types of agriculture is possible.

How does the work of the European Regional Focal Point for Animal Genetic Resources (ERFP) help in these areas? What role does EUGENA play?

The European region, through its Regional Focal Point for Animal Genetic Resources, has established the European Genebank Network for AnGR (EUGENA). The EUGENA is a network of Member Genebanks in European countries with aim to support the ex situ conservation and sustainable use of AnGR and facilitate the implementation of the FAO’s GPA and the Nagoya Protocol for ABS in Europe.

EUGENA is included in ERFP which, at a fundamental level, is trying to raise awareness around animal genetic resources. We try to ensure that the national co-ordinators actually realise that there is interesting work to do in this area; we want to try and help them build connections with the people who work in the field so that we have messengers when we have projects coming up or when we have a study or survey etc.

The work of the national co-ordinators is important because we need to work as a network, and we need to make this network come alive and trigger down the messages and the ideas that we have, whilst also working in the opposite sense by having the national co-ordinators provide us with their ideas and the ideas of the people on the ground when it comes to animal genetic resources in their respective countries.

One of the main challenges here, of course, comes from the language barrier, in that many farmers only speak their own national language, and the same is often true of the technical people.

How do you overcome that?

We actively work to have the right people in several countries that can translate the messages, and we will also depend on the more national co-ordinator. It is really a matter of people; when people are really interested in a subject, then they will want to see a document translated into their national language.

How is the EFRP working to support the ex situ conservation and sustainable use of AnGR and to facilitate the implementation of the FAO’s GPA and the Nagoya Protocol for ABS in Europe. And how do you feel this work will need to develop in the future?

One of the many issues is the next CAP, as well as what kind of next calls are going to come next from the EU because networks and networking helps to come up with the right answers. It is also incredibly important that large scale projects on animal genetic resources continue to be funded and supported moving forwards (which is a point that needs to be raised given the fact that in the forthcoming calls, the only projects being mentioned in this area are in regard to plants).

What are your thoughts on the Access and Benefit-Sharing (ABS) mechanism?

The Access and Benefit-Sharing (ABS) mechanism aims at organising the relationships between a user and a provider of genetic resources and associated traditional knowledge, and one of the main issues at the moment is digital sequence information – although that is a topic that is being discussed at a global level.

This issue perhaps stems from the fact that when the level protocol was written people weren’t necessarily thinking about in silico information such as gene sequencing, and so there is now a problem with genome editing in the sense that some countries (such as Brazil) are concerned that other (western) nations are going to use their knowledge of genome sequencing and editing techniques to change the DNA of their animals.

This may lead to the model protocol being extended to include in silico data, because at the moment and because of the way that the protocol is written, that is not the case. Indeed, ABS and so on is restricted to genetic resources (which includes DNA itself), but not the information that goes with it, and they would therefore like to extend that.

Should that happen, then there is a very real danger that many of the huge consortiums which have been established to explore the genomes of birds, poultry, goats and so on, which offer the consortium members free access to the information, will potentially begin to disappear and this will have a significant effect on genetic research as well as on areas such as characterisation.

Coralie Danchin
European Regional Focal Point for Animal Genetic Resources (ERFP)
+33 1 40 04 53 14

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