Crossbreeding or not crossbreeding? That is not the question

“Grape leaf pruning just prior to grape veraison using high-density flash grazing by sheep, May 2014. Photo by M. Doran

Written by Saverio Krätli (Editor of Nomadic Peoples) and Fred Provenza (Professor Emeritus of Behavioural Ecology in the Department of Wildland Resources, Utah State University)

Is crossbreeding of African breeds a path to hell or heaven? The debate on whether or not to crossbreed might be focusing on the wrong question. It depends on what we mean by ‘crossbreeding’, and that depends on how the livestock system relates to the natural environment.

There is much confusion in the wider debate. For instance, in 2020, a team of scientists working with the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) geneticist Olivier Hanotte, used evidence of a taurine x indicine cattle admixture event some 750–1,050 years ago, supposedly ‘at the root of the present success of African pastoralism’, to make the case for ‘further crossbreeding of indigenous African cattle with exotic cattle… as one of the pathways for the continent’s food security’.

Yet in 2000, Olivier Hanotte and ILRI colleagues made the opposite case from equivalent evidence, arguing that combined taurine x indicine origins in African cattle ‘should … provide a rational basis needed for the conservation of the genetic diversity found in indigenous African cattle population’. And in 2015 they argued that ‘African indigenous cattle are in danger of extinction due to rash crossbreeding with exotic breeds’. Different implications of ‘crossbreeding’ are suggested, with different implications for pastoral development and animal biodiversity.

Pastoral breeding practices: working with the environment

Livestock keepers in Africa have exchanged animals and sought desirable combinations for centuries. This remains common amongst contemporary pastoralists, for example, in cattle breeding amongst mobile pastoralist FulBe (Fulani) in Niger and Cameroon, and camel husbandry amongst the Rendille in Kenya. Practices that recall conventional notions of crossbreeding and out-crossing (between individuals of different matrilineal lineages within the same breed) are normal in developing and maintaining pastoral herds. In their absence, so-called ‘indigenous breeds’ would not exist. But such practices are fundamentally different in their goals and logic from the crossbreeding commonly proposed in development programmes, and the difference is not just in degree along a scale of sophistication, it is in kind.

Pokot children in Uganda preparing a young bull for castration. Photo by Saverio Krätli

Modern agriculture was built assuming a distinction between humanity and nature, as a project of emancipating food production from the variability of natural environments. What Jules Pretty, in his foreword to The Hidden Cost of UK Food, calls ‘the view that agriculture was an economic sector separated from the environment’. In animal production, this started by representing the animal as a machine, whose performance was maximised as a metabolising vat. Ideally, the natural environment is pushed outside the systems’ boundaries, as in zero-grazing conditions. When functional isolation is impractical, nature is represented as a background of potentially disturbing climatic and health hazards.

Conversely, pastoral systems developed by operating with the natural environment and its variability rather than in isolation. That requires different means of production, thus different breeding objectives and practices, including crossbreeding.

The objective of breeding in pastoralism is not to maximise a trait or set of traits towards some optimum and stable animal-object with the ‘right’ combination of genes. Pastoral breeding populations are developed to interface with landscapes that are permanently in the making. Thus, breeds are also permanently in the making and include multiple and variable ‘right’ combinations. This variability in the making, which is meant to match the variability in the environment in time and space, is the only path to a relative but sustainable stability.

Pokot children in Uganda preparing a young bull for castration. Photo by Saverio Krätli

Animal cultures

This kind of breeding and crossbreeding includes complex learned behaviours. Examples include feeding competence, social organisation, knowledge of the territory, attachment to herders, experience in managing difficult terrains or high temperatures and so forth. All create animals adapted to the multiple landscapes they inhabit. These kinds of complex behaviours are part of what animal behaviour scientists call ‘animal cultures’.

Animals create relationships with what they deem to be relevant facets of the social and biophysical environments they inhabit. Mothers and social groups are crucial transgenerational linkages to landscapes. Mothers’ influences begin in the womb (through flavours of foods they eat, via the amniotic fluid) and continue after birth (through flavours in their milk). When offspring begin to forage, mothers are the models for what and where to eat, or what to avoid. Learned behaviours and abilities involve anatomical and physiological changes in organ systems, including the microbiome, as genes expressed epigenetically facilitate ongoing co-creation in ever-changing environments. While these behaviours are not innate, they are transmissible in non-genetic ways.

Social and cultural linkages with landscapes are outside the field of classical genetics and animal science. For a more representative view of what matters, we need conceptual frameworks that embrace the relationship between organism and environment, such as developmental biology and epigenetics. A marriage between animal sciences and agroecology could be a way to redesign animal production along these lines.  

Following an approach closer to breeding in pastoral systems than to conventional gene-based breeding, scientists are training livestock to eat invasive plants thought to be unpalatable, and training them not to eat otherwise palatable plants; for example to allow the use of sheep to manage vineyards.

“Grape leaf pruning just prior to grape veraison using high-density flash grazing by sheep, May 2014. Photo by M. Doran

Embedding variability

Breeding and crossbreeding for embedding variability into the herd increases the biodiversity of domestic animals and their environment. It is a functional, contingent and continuous honing of the capacities of a herd to interact with the landscape. Crossbreeding towards some ‘ideal’ optimum in individual animals, on the other hand, reduces overall biodiversity. One approach does not exclude the other and some pastoralists today may at times use both.

In short, there is ‘crossbreeding’ (in pastoral systems) and ‘crossbreeding’ (in animal science). The difference hinges on the way the production system relates to the natural environment. It depends on whether the goal is securing herd-level engagement with nature’s variability, as in pastoralism, or is maximising individual production in isolation from the natural environment, as in the model of animal production that continues to inform rural development and livestock breeding programmes.

Debates on crossbreeding must take on board the existence of such fundamentally different traditions, accepting the importance of pastoral practices embedding variability through crossbreeding. With climate change now upon us, an approach to breeding and livestock-keeping centred on interacting with a changing environment seems increasingly relevant even beyond pastoral development.

This blog is part of our series on climate change, biodiversity and livestock.

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