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An evolutionary jolt helped cattle to spread across Africa



OLIVIER HANOTTE | African cattle breeds are astonishingly diverse, and often quite beautiful. They range from the dark-red Ankole of southern Uganda, with their massive heat-dissipating horns, to the Boran which thrive in the dusty plains of northern Kenya, to Ethiopia’s sturdy Mursi cattle, with their prominent shoulder humps and hanging dewlaps. The Kuri that graze on the grasses of Lake Chad are adept swimmers; the Red Fulani can trudge vast distances along the margins of the Sahara; and the famously disease-resistant Sheko inhabit tsetse fly-infested forests of southwest Ethiopia.

All billion or so cattle today descend from ancient aurochs, an extinct species of wild cattle that once inhabited large swaths of Eurasia. These cattle were domesticated on at least two distinct occasions approximately 10,000 years ago during the Neolithic era: once in south Asia – leading to the zebu or humped cattle – and the other in the Middle East – leading to the taurine or humpless cattle.

In Africa, the oldest archaeological evidence of domestic cattle dates back to between 6000 and 5000 BC in western Egypt. These taurine cattle, initially confined to the Saharan-Sahelian belt, eventually reached isolated pockets of land in West and East Africa.

Africa’s cattle today have adapted to the climate, forage conditions, diseases and pests prevalent in their habitat. The individuals best adapted to their environments were more likely to survive and reproduce. They were also more favoured by people. Over time this led to different breeds and species.

Today there are an estimated 800 million livestock keepers across the continent. Cattle provide nutritious, calorie-dense food, much-needed income, and nitrogen-rich manure for replenishing soils. There are few regions of Africa where cattle do not play a central role, both economically and culturally.

But it was not always this way. My colleagues and I from the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) recently published a paper detailing how African cattle acquired their adaptive capacities.

Sifting through the DNA of 16 indigenous African breeds, we discovered a thousand-year-old event in which the world’s two main subspecies of cattle – namely taurine and zebus – mixed. This allowed African cattle – after spending thousands of years confined to certain regions in Africa – to diversify and spread across the continent.

Our findings help to explain how African cattle spread throughout the continent. But since they were selected and bred for resilience, African cattle never became as productive, in terms of meat or milk, as breeds in more temperate climates. Our hope is that, by studying the history hidden in indigenous cattle genomes, we can help guide efforts to breed for productivity without losing the breeds’ native resilience and sustainability.

An evolutionary jolt

Our new genome sequencing work revealed that, about a thousand years ago, pastoralist herders in the Horn of Africa began breeding the Asian zebu cattle with local taurine breeds.

The zebu offered traits that allowed cattle to survive in hot, dry climates. The taurine traits provided cattle with the ability to endure humid climates, where vector-borne diseases that affect cattle, like trypanosomiasis (or “sleeping sickness”) are common.

This event, which we dubbed an “evolutionary jolt”, allowed African cattle – after spending thousands of years confined to a shifting patchwork of sub-regions in Africa – to spread across the continent and flourish into the breeds we see today.

But this resilience came at a cost. African cattle are often not as productive – in terms of growth rates, meat or milk – as their European and American cousins. Canadian Holsteins, for example, can deliver 30 litres of milk per day, several times what most African breeds are capable of. Traditional Ethiopian Boran, for example, produced only four to six litres of milk per day.

More productive

Today scientists at ILRI, in partnership with governmental institutions in Tanzania and Ethiopia, are again trying to deliver an evolutionary jolt to Africa’s cattle. This time, however, they want to speed up the evolutionary clock by identifying genetic markers that signal both adaptability and productivity. Screening embryos for these markers could help scientists replicate in the lab the slow work of evolution by favouring the traits that most benefit farmers.

Earlier efforts to improve cattle productivity on the continent focused on importing cattle breeds from elsewhere, without adequately recognising African breeds’ unique resilience. Nearly, all these attempts have failed or resulted in crossbreeds with both adaptability and productivity diluted.

This time, we are focusing on sustainable productivity–productivity that builds on rather than disregards the resilience of indigenous African breeds.

But while we have new tools and shortcuts which enables scientists to analyse vast swaths of genetic data and decide which breeds could work well together, there are some lessons we should still draw from the first evolutionary jolt.

The first is that we shouldn’t be overly concerned about crossbreeding. Because of a sense of national pride and wanting to conserve indigenous African cattle breeds, there is at times a tendency on the part of some to treat them as iconic, untouchable manuscripts.

This ignores the long tradition of crossbreeding practised by African livestock farmers and pastoralists – they were (and still are) constantly mixing and matching breeds to select the animals best suited to their needs.

Another lesson is that, as scientists experiment and cross-breed, it is vitally important to remember that the local breeds have adaptations – not all of them immediately obvious (a tolerance for episodic drought, for example) – that have enabled their success. It is important that we do not lose those adaptive traits in the randomness of crossbreeding.

This will take innovative crossbreeding programs that incorporate scientists, government ministries, private partners and farmers to ensure the conservation of genetic information across the long life cycle of cattle generations.

And finally, it’s essential to include the practical, accumulated experience of pastoralists in these processes.


Olivier Hanotte is Principal Scientist, Professor of Genetics, University of Nottingham, UK, International Livestock Research Institute. David Aronson, Senior Communications Advisor with ILRI, contributed to the writing of this article.


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National Coffee Forum Petitions Parliament Over UCDA Merger



Coffee stakeholders through National Coffee Forum say UCDA merger will disrupt the coffee sub-sector. Coffee is one of the leading sources of foreign exchange for Uganda

Coffee stakeholders through the National Coffee Forum – Uganda (NCF – UG) has petitioned Parliament through the Speaker over the proposed mainstreaming of Uganda Coffee Development Authority (UCDA) into Ministry of Agriculture, Animal Industry and Fisheries (MAAIF)

The government plans to merge a number of Agencies to the line Ministries in a move aimed at saving about Shs1 trillion annually. If the move succeeds, UCDA will be taken to MAAIF.

However, coffee stakeholders through NCF – UG say that they find the proposal to take UCDA to MAAIF untenable and detrimental to the coffee sub-sector.

NCF-UG is a private foundation whose membership includes farmers, processors, exporters, roasters, brewers and researchers, among others.

The Forum Chairperson Francis Wakabi says that mainstreaming the entity will negatively affect the achievements Uganda has attained in coffee production and export.

“This decision will negatively affect our access to the international market and will stunt Uganda’s economic growth opportunities by distorting the functions of UCDA that have stabilized the industry over the years,” said Wakabi in a petition dated February 21, 2024. The petition was copied in to the Chairperson of Parliament’s Committee on Agriculture, Animal Industry and Fisheries as well as all MPs.

He adds that Uganda should not risk its achievements by tampering with UDCA that is the main contributor to our coffee success story.

“Mainstreaming it would therefore disrupt the many livelihoods that depend on the industry and adversely affect the badly needed foreign exchange for the country,” the petition reads in part.

As a result of UCDA coffee regulation, Wakabi says that Uganda’s competitiveness was elevated on the global market, ensuring high quality Uganda coffee and enabling Uganda’s coffee to displace that of Brazil and India in Italy and UK coffee markets.

“… World over, coffee is supervised and regulated by a specialized body like UCDA for purposes of institutional memory and specialized focus. Experience from Ethiopia and Kenya who disbanded their specialized coffee authorities and mainstreamed them back into the relevant ministries had to reverse their decisions after registering negative outcomes,” said Wakabi.

The Forum further says that the European Union (EU) buys over 60% of Uganda coffee, making it the biggest market for Uganda.

“The EU has introduced a new regulation called the EU deforestation regulations (EUDR) which bans export of coffee from deforested land, taking effect from 2025. This calls for farmer traceability and the EU commission in Uganda is already working with UCDA to implement the said regulations. They require a country to constantly monitor deforested areas and map all the farmers for purposes of implementation of the farmer traceability program to maintain a high standard of quality. It was reported that Uganda has achieved most of the requirements under the EUDR and required a few steps to be declared compliant. Monitoring and implementing the scheme for the millions of farmers is a tedious activity which requires a specialized unit that can be best implemented using the already established structures of UCDA. Disrupting the current UCDA structure will not only halt the progress made in achieving compliance, but also risk reversing the gains made,” added Wakabi.

He avers that UCDA has been able to greatly contribute to Uganda’s improved Coffee quality through implementation of programs such as certification of Coffee nurseries to ensure quality of planting materials, Provision of Coffee specific extension services and agronomy to improve production and productivity, Provision of technical expertise in Coffee rehabilitation, post-harvest handling practices and pest and disease management and provision of coffee processing equipment like wet mills to farmers and cooperatives to improve quality and promote value addition. The coffee stakeholders are worried that once UCDA is taken to MAAIF which is loaded with many crops and projects, coffee, a key source of foreign exchange for Uganda may not get the necessary priority. Coffee stakeholders argue that if indeed Parliament is a people-centred institution, it should listen to the views of farmers and other stakeholders and retain UCDA as a semi-autonomous agency.

“Given the above position with the attendant reasons, the NCF advises that the proposed mainstreaming of UCDA into MAAIF should not be implemented and that the proposed Bill No. 30 (part VII) be dropped in order not to disrupt the industry and the progress made under the stewardship of UCDA. All coffee stakeholders are unanimously in agreement with this position,” reads the petition in part.


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Govt to import 10 million vaccines to control cattle disease



Entebbe, Uganda.  Government is set to import 10 million doses of vaccines to enable scaling up of ring vaccination as the fight to eradicate Foot and Mouth Disease (FMD) in Ugandan cattle enters a new phase.

Cabinet chaired by President Yoweri Museveni on Monday also proposed that once ring vaccination is complete, farmers start paying for the FMD vaccines in a compulsory vaccination scheme, and thereafter, trade in animal products, will be restricted to those adhering to the plan.

Minister of Agriculture, Animal industry and Fishers Frank Tumwebazwe on Monday shared the resolutions after Cabinet laid out strategies to contain the disease that has hit 36 districts.

Cabinet agreed to create a revolving fund to enable procurement of sufficient FMD vaccines to facilitate compulsory bi-annual vaccination of the susceptible domestic animal population. It also approved a plan for farmers to pay for the vaccines while government covers other costs.

“Vaccination is to be made compulsory. Proof of vaccination will be a precondition for any farmer to sell any animal products,” said Minister Tumwebazwe.

“I appeal to fellow livestock farmers and stakeholders to understand and appreciate these effort as we steadily move to eradicate FMD in Uganda just like other animal diesases like rinderpest wre eradicated.”

Ntoroko veterinary disease surveillance team conducting FMD surveillance and sample collection

The 36 districts currently affected and under quarantine are Budaka, Bukedea, Bukomansimbi, Bunyangabu, Butaleja, Fortportal City, Gomba, Ibanda, Isingiro, Kabarole, Kasanda, Kayunga, Kazo, Kiboga, Kibuku, Kiruhura, Kumi, Kyankwanzi, Kyegegwa, Kyotera, Luuka, Lwengo, Lyantonde, Mbarara, Mbarara City, Mityana, Mpigi, Mubende, Nakaseke, Nakasongola, Namisindwa, Ngora, Ntungamo, Rakai, Rwampara and Sembabule.

All districts neighboring the affected districts are at high risk, under strict surveillance, and the authorities have been advised to remain vigilant.

These include Apac, Amolatar, Bugiri, Bushenyi, Butaleja, Hoima, Iganga, Jinja, Kabale, Kaberamaido, Kaliro, Kamuli, Kamwenge, Katakwi, Kasese, Kibaale, Kiboga, Kyenjojo, Mbale, Masindi, Mayuge, Mukono, Namalemba, Nakapiripirit,
Palisa, Rukungiri, Sironko, Wakiso and Soroti.

Tumwebaze assured farmers that in the next one or two months, his Ministry expects to receive and dispatch 2.3 million doses of the FMD vaccine to the affected and susceptible districts for ring vaccination scale-up.

He told parliament earlier that as a way of increasing availability of Foot and Mouth Disease vaccines in the country,
Uganda’s National Agiculture Research Organisation (NARO) has started the process of formulating and developing an FMD vaccine for Uganda.

Source: The independent

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Farmers losing Shs4 trillion due to livestock diseases



ScienceDirect has revealed that farmers in Uganda lose more than $1.1b (Shs4.1 trillion) in aggregated annual direct and indirect loss due to the rising spread of tick-borne animal challenges, with the commonest and economically damaging tick-borne disease being the East Coast Fever.

The livestock industry in Uganda and its productivity continue to be threatened by a number of diseases many of which are tick-borne related.

This, Dr Anna Rose Ademun, the Ministry of Agriculture commissioner animal health, said results from arcaricides that have become resistant, thus the need to ensure collaboration and get solutions to the problem.

“There are ongoing efforts by the Agriculture Ministry, in collaboration with the Food and Agriculture Organisation to support diagnosis of tick resistance to acaricides at regional laboratory centres but this is not enough,” she said during the livestock industry key stakeholders meeting in Kampala, which had been convened to discuss and prioritise areas for tick control.

The stakeholders included veterinarians, extension staff, farmers, processors and government representatives.

Ministry of Agriculture is already working on the Managing Animal Health and Acaricides for a Better Africa Initiative, which seeks to, among others, provide sustainable solutions to enable small-scale farmers maximise the potential of their cattle by developing and practicing methods that can successfully manage tick infections in cattle.

During the meeting, the TickAcademy App, which will support farmers in managing tick infestations was also pre-launched.

By the end of January, farmers and extension workers will be able to access the app’s educational content, which includes simple-to-watch films, to help them become knowledgeable about tick control.

Mr Enrique Hernández Pando, the GALVmed head of commercial development and impact, said the Managing Animal Health and Acaricides for a Better Africa Initiative will be important in tackling acaricide resistance challenges as well as help farmers and animal health officers to access creative methods of addressing the problem of acaricide resistance.

During the meeting, stakeholders jointly agree to train and sensitise field staff and farmers about tick management strategies that work, as well as strengthen the diagnostic infrastructure and testing capabilities for tick resistance and other animal health-related concerns.

Others will involve making it easier for farmers to obtain credit from savings institutions run by farmer groups at a reasonable cost so they may purchase specialized equipment for applying pesticides.

Mr Nishal Gunpath, the Elanco Animal Health country director south and sub-Saharan Africa, said they will support the Initiative to drive livestock in a better direction, noting that it will also help small-scale livestock farmers to maximise their potential.

Original Source: Daily Monitor

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