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Fast action needed on national livestock gene bank

Terry Sim, June 20, 2022

Professor Simon De Graaf

THE faster Australia establishes a livestock genetics gene bank, the safer the future of the nation’s animal industries will be, according to University of Sydney Professor of Animal Production Simon De Graaf.

The Department of Agriculture Water and Environment has told Sheep Central that a report into a livestock gene bank business case was nearing finalisation by CSIRO.

“The livestock gene bank was an initiative of the previous government and has not been prioritised for implementation by the new government.”

Current minister for Agriculture Murray Watt has told Sheep Central his priorities for the agriculture sector will be heavily informed by industry and he is seeking advice from the department about the gene bank.

“I’m already working closely with industry to ensure that I have a strong understanding of current challenges and I look forward to addressing those in the near future.”

Professor De Graaf said like all people working in agriculture, he is concerned about the serious biosecurity threats the industry regularly faces.

“Frozen genetic resources (semen, embryos, eggs) offer something of an insurance policy should the unthinkable happen and Australia suffers a major disease outbreak.

“Significant private stocks of frozen semen (and to a lesser extent embryos) already exist for the sheep and cattle industries so there is a degree of insurance now,” he said.

“However, there is currently no mechanism to coordinate these resources in the context of biosecurity disaster recovery, or how well they cover the genetic diversity and depth required to reconstitute particular traits, breeds or even species of livestock.

“A national livestock gene bank would help remedy these issues, identify the genetic holes that need to be filled in the cryotanks and provide a major boost to Australia’s biosecurity insurance policy,” Professor De Graaf said.

“Livestock genebanks form a key part of disaster recovery plans in all countries that have them.

“We would definitely benefit from having our own.”

A DAWE spokesperson told Sheep Central that the department commissioned the CSIRO business case study in July 2021, but Professor De Graaf said it was “probably more fair” to say that it has taken decades to get to the current stage on this issue.

“A national livestock gene bank has long been lauded by both sides of politics as a good idea in principle, but the devil is always in the details: What form does it take? How does it run and who runs it? How much will it cost? How is it funded?

“I’m very grateful to former (Agriculture) Minister (David) Littleproud for not putting the gene bank in the too hard basket as had occurred in decades gone by,” he said.

“Instead, he set the wheels in motion within DAWE to work towards a solution.

“I am sure CSIRO have done a great job with the report having engaged widely and listened to a variety of experiences and opinions both nationally and internationally,” he said.

“No doubt we’ll hear from DAWE soon as to the outcomes of the report and the next steps for the National Livestock Gene Bank.”

Professor De Graaf said Australia’s biosecurity will always be under threat, so when it comes to securing our genetic resources: there’s no time like the present.

“After all, you can’t wait until your house burns down to take out insurance.

“Act now! The faster we take action, the safer the future of our animal industries will be.”

A livestock gene bank has ‘considerable prima facie merit’

National Livestock Genetics Consortium Dougal Gordon said the detection of Foot and Mouth Diseas and Lumpy Skin Disease in Indonesia has energised a suite of preparedness activities by industry and Government.

“With FMD control costs alone amounting to an estimated $80b over 10 years, it is heartening that both diseases are being given the attention that they deserve.

“A national livestock gene bank comprising genetics of Australia’s production animals has considerable prima facie merit, particularly in the first instance, for cloven hoofed animals affected by FMD (sheep, beef and dairy cattle as well as pigs and goats) and cattle affected by LSD.”

Mr Gordon said the National Livestock Genetics Consortia (NLGC) is a $100 million initiative seeking to double the rate of genetic gain of sheep and cattle via research, development and adoption activities.

“The NLGC taskforce most recently met prior to the current outbreak in Indonesia and hence has not considered potential genetics related R&D relating to a National livestock gene bank.

“I have not been privy to the Commonwealth discussions regarding a National Livestock Gene Bank and hence can’t comment on this.”

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