Genetic improvement in South African livestock : can genomics bridge the gap between the developed and developing sectors?

18 Oct 2018

South Africa (SA) holds a unique position on the African continent with a rich diversity in terms of available livestock resources, vegetation, climatic regions and cultures. The livestock sector has been characterized by a dual system of a highly developed commercial sector using modern technology vs. a developing sector including emerging and smallholder farmers. Emerging farmers typically aim to join the commercial sector, but lag behind with regard to the use of modern genetic technologies, while smallholder farmers use traditional practices aimed at subsistence. Several factors influence potential application of genomics by the livestock industries, which include available research funding, socio-economic constraints and extension services. State funded Beef and Dairy genomic programs have been established with the aim of building reference populations for genomic selection with most of the potential beneficiaries in the well-developed commercial sector. The structure of the beef, dairy and small stock industries is fragmented and the outcomes of selection strategies are not perceived as an advantage by the processing industry or the consumer. The indigenous and local composites represent approximately 40% of the total beef and sheep populations and present valuable genetic resources. Genomic research has mostly provided insight on genetic biodiversity of these resources, with limited attention to novel phenotypes associated with adaptation or disease tolerance. Genetic improvement of livestock through genomic technology needs to address the role of adapted breeds in challenging environments, increasing reproductive and growth efficiency. National animal recording schemes contributed significantly to progress in the developed sector with regard to genetic evaluations and estimated breeding values (EBV) as a selection tool over the past three decades. The challenge remains on moving the focus to novel traits for increasing efficiency and addressing welfare and environmental issues. Genetic research programs are required that will be directed to bridge the gap between the elite breeders and the developing livestock sector. The aim of this review was to provide a perspective on the dichotomy in the South African livestock sector arguing that a realistic approach to the use of genomics in beef, dairy and small stock is required to ensure sustainable long term genetic progress.