Several reports from researchers around the globe predict the emergence and spread of infectious diseases as the result of climate change. Some of these diseases are new; others are not but they’re showing up in new places creating a new threat for those areas. This unfortunate development has created a new urgency in genetically modifying farm plants and animals specifically for disease resistance.
The search for disease-resistant livestock has been underway for many years since disease has always threatened our food supply. But the scope of that search has changed. Now farmers everywhere need animals that are resistant to far more diseases than just those they have historically fought in their geographical area.
Breeding animals resistant to a multitude of diseases is a huge challenge in itself.
However, that challenge is magnified by other problems.
Lessons learned in Africa
Livestock already exists that are disease resistant and capable of thriving on poor feed and in harsh environments. But those animals tend to be scrawny.
Disease-resistance is not the only trait farm animals need. They also need to produce enough healthy offspring and enough meat per animal to feed a growing population of hungry people. So, hardy but scrawny animals are far from the end goal.
Farmers in Africa, where some of the most disease resistant animals on the planet live, have tried to breed their animals with animals from other parts of the world that produce more meat. Unfortunately, this plan isn’t going as well as hoped. The meatier animals are succumbing to disease sometimes before they even have the chance to breed. Others last a breeding cycle or two, and then pass away from a disease or from the harshness of the environment. As any farmer can attest, losing expensive livestock that quickly is not a sustainable situation for cash strapped farmers.
To better understand the many complex problems encountered in these cross-breeding efforts in Africa, watch this short video by the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI).
This bodes ill for farmers in other countries who now need to begin to genetically add additional disease resistance to their animals. Climate change will bring more than disease. Widespread droughts and flooding will destroy farm land and feed crops. Changes in soil and weather will also change the nutritional value of feed as well. Keeping animals alive, healthy and breeding through a constant flux of environmental changes is going to be a very tough task.
How geneticists are trying to attack climate change and help animals adapt
“Agriculture as a source of greenhouse gases IS NOT the main issue. Protecting agriculture from climate change IS the main issue.”
Geneticists are hard at work developing farm animals and plants that are not only disease resistant, but hardy enough to withstand other environmental challenges too while also producing large yields of meat. Meatier animals are necessary to both feed a growing human population and to ensure that the loss of some animals to environmental challenges is not catastrophic in the bigger picture.
Geneticists are also hard at work developing genetic modified organisms that can combat, if not help reverse, climate change. For example, by genetically reinforcing coral reefs, scientists hope to prevent ocean acidification and all of its life-altering effects.
“I think it is a last resort,” said coral geneticist Madeleine van Oppen from Townsville’s Australian Institute of Marine Science according to a post in the Genetic Literacy Project. “But you have to develop the biological tool kit now because it will take some time, so we have to test the various options before it is too late.”
“Van Oppen, a lead author on a research paper published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) last month, said environmental engineering techniques for building coral reef resilience also included breeding a new generation of corals to be more tolerant of certain conditions and selective breeding,” continued the author of the Genetic Literacy Project post.
To better understand all the many complex issues farmers must overcome as climate change advances, watch this video.
Here’s hoping scientists succeed in their many efforts to help us all deal with climate change.
Climate change brings new infectious diseases to farms, new urgency in breeding resistance