Local Genetic Variants Superior To Imports: Case For Traditional Breeds 

by Rajeev Srinivasan - Mar 7, 2017 10:13 AM +05:30 IST
Local Genetic Variants  Superior To Imports: Case For Traditional Breeds A farmer ploughing his field
  • Genetic modifications do occur in nature all the time: it is the basis of evolution and natural selection. But, forceful creations will do more harm than good.

The most intriguing aspect of the struggle over jallikattu was the fact that the festival, in an indirect way, leads to the preservation of native species of cattle. As was explained by some people on social media, it turns out the bull-taming sport is an excellent way of adding economic value to the bulls of certain native variants – in the absence of this value, the bulls would merely have been sent to the slaughter-house.

Particularly in poorer countries, the economic rationale may well be an overwhelming force in various decisions. It appears for instance, that the only way 'nature preserves' are viable is if the income from tourism for the locals, exceeds the economic value of killing the animals and eating them. If there is a steady flow of revenue from keeping the big animals alive – such as elephants or tigers or rhino – then those animals live; else they are poached.

We have seen some perverse incentives in India based on wrong-headed economic ideas. For instance, India is turning out to be one of the most water-stressed nations in the world, and I am reminded of the fact that the state government in Kerala used to pay people to fill in the wells in their homes! Similarly, there has been a craze for importing Holsteins and other European breeds of cattle, or foreign chicken breeds such as White Leghorn, to ostensibly ‘improve’ the native breeds, which mostly means more milk or more eggs.

No doubt the people who did this, or at least most of them, were well-meaning. Not all, though: there are persistent rumours about bio-piracy, including in the spiriting away of rice germplasm. But the root of this approach is the monoculture philosophy that will one day be the death of agriculture in the West: witness the potato blight that devastated Ireland in the 1850s. Whenever I drove through the Great Plains states of the US Midwest, I was impressed by the large acreage under a mono-crop like corn; and nervous about what might happen with a single pest or infestation. Or even drought or climate change.

We see the effects of global warming on the ground in India, as flowering patterns are going haywire. The one that I have observed most carefully is that of the Indian Laburnum, Cassia fistula, whose beautiful flowers of spun gold have always been the harbingers of Vishu, April 14, the equivalent of the Spring Equinox. It is called the kani konna, konna being the less comely common laburnum, and kani being the traditional cornucopia of fruits and flowers and a gold coin and an image of the baby Krishna.

I remember them vividly because the last kani konna flowers last till June 21, the Summer Solstice, the day my father passed away, the last day of Uttarayanam. This year I don’t think the flowers will last that long, because the first flowers were in bloom as early as January, far earlier than April. The mango trees in my neighbour’s yard are also blooming early, making them vulnerable to pre-monsoon showers.

But, in general, I suspect the local flora are more in tune with climate cycles here, and they will be able to better adapt to the warming trend. Presumably, there have been periods of sustained higher temperatures in the past, and the plants would have adapted. They would have had to do so to survive because they seldom have the option of migrating up to higher, cooler ground (although the tree line may indeed be getting higher even in the Western Ghats).

This is where I get nervous about genetically modified organisms (GMO). Genetic modifications do occur in nature all the time: it is the basis of evolution and natural selection. But the human effort to short-circuit these slow-moving changes may be rash, and there is always the principle of unintended consequences: hence the fear of creating monsters through our ignorance.

In particular, the issue of “transgenic” animals and plants, into which a foreign gene from some unrelated species has been introduced, bothers me: chimaeras have a bad reputation, and cross-species mixes almost never happen in nature. Creating one is a potential Pandora’s Box: for instance a plant that has genes introduced from some totally unrelated animal. Wrong, or hasty, science may cause a catastrophe: remember Thalidomide?

In computer science, there is the dictum that “premature optimisation is the root of all evil”: that is, by not understanding the system in its totality, if you try to fix something, you may cause a serious problem elsewhere. (Unfortunately, Cartesian Westerners, prone to deconstructing something down to its parts, are unable to apply holistic thinking, wherein the whole may be much more than the sum of its parts).

The same principle applies multifold in biology. When you’re playing God, you should be exceedingly risk-averse, or you could end up with a scenario like The Day of The Triffids, where sentient, mobile plants bred for their oil content realise they have an advantage over humans: they can eat humans, but humans don’t find them appetising. The consequences, as you can imagine, are not pleasant for humans.

Many thinkers have warned about artificial intelligence and their possible clash, Skynet-like, with humans; on a lesser scale, imported plants and animals have wrought havoc on native species. An example is the water hyacinth, a pernicious weed that has choked waterways in Kerala after being introduced as an ornamental plant. In other parts of the world, pests ranging from brown snakes to rabbits to feral cats to Burmese pythons have devastated the places into which they were imported.

Compared to all this, the foreign cattle breeds that we have become reliant on may appear more benign. However, I doubt if the imports are heat-tolerant; and the cross-breeds that now dominate Kerala animal husbandry may well die of heat-stroke. Sadly, Kerala, which used to be a storehouse of genetic variation with as many as 57 varieties of rice and 19 of bananas/plantains cultivated widely, is now firmly in the mono-crop camp.

An article in the Times of India, Center mulls phasing out cattle cross-breeding, suggested that it was now too late to eliminate the imports for Kerala, even though the “indigenous varieties were also found to more disease-resistant and adapted to the local climate and ecosystem”. This, even though it turns out the cross-breeds have only five to six calves in their productive lives, as compared to as many as 10 -12 for some hardy native breeds.

The error was to focus on a single parameter, the quantity of milk delivered by the imports and cross-breeds per calving. As Viva Kermani points out in her thorough essay on GMOs, this is an example of a dubious metric, to begin with. Ironically, with their fewer calves, the full life-cycle milk production of the imported cattle is apparently less than that of the indigenous varieties.

The article goes on to quote the director of the animal husbandry department that “nearly 97 per cent of the cattle population in Kerala was already cross-bred variety and the state had just limited stock of indigenous varieties like Vechur cows”. This is a crying shame.

But there is more. The European cattle are a distinct subspecies, Bos taurus Taurus, whereas the Indian Zebu Humped cattle are Bos Taurus Indicus. And most Indicus deliver superior A2 milk, whereas many Taurus delivers A1 milk, which many individuals are intolerant (lactose intolerance), and whose nutritional content is also, lower. Alas, thanks to the likes of Amul and the Indo-Swiss Project in Mattupetty, almost all of us now drink it. A2 milk, incidentally, is sold as a higher-priced speciality product in Europe.

There is one more intriguing fact: about 460,000 Bos Taurus picked up Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE), or mad-cow disease in Europe, and perhaps five million of them were culled to bring the epidemic under control. 177 people died in the UK alone of Creuzfeldt-Jakob Disease, the human equivalent, caught from BSE-infected cattle. But not even one Bos Indicus is known to have been affected. The disease, an incurable and fatal brain disease similar to kuru, known to occur among cannibals in Papua New Guinea, is a dramatic form of dementia in which prions in the brain rapidly cause the animal to die.

It is known that one of the reasons for the spread of mad-cow diseases was the European habit of feeding the ground-up brains of (presumably diseased) cattle to other cows. Similarly, it is Papuan cannibals who eat the brains of their enemies who end up with kuru. Perhaps Bos Indicus were not fed the brains of other cattle, which may be one reason for their immunity.

But do they also have genetic immunity? I have not been able to find any research that definitively answers this question, but what I did find suggests that there are indeed genetic differences between the two breeds and that the zebu may well have genes that protect it from mad-cow disease.

Nevertheless, we have, foolishly, let Indian breeds slowly die out. The irony is that Indian genetic variants have led to the American Brahman breed as well as thriving Brazilian breeds, which are heat-resistant and adapted to the tropics. So much so that 90 per cent of Brazil’s beef cattle now are derived from India’s Nellore cattle. The Economist says that Colombia’s herds of docile Indian-derived zebu cattle (“fast growth, large size, white hides”) are being decimated by Jaguars, and they are now breeding the more warlike San Martino variety to fend off the predators. Surely there is a metaphor lurking in there somewhere.

Given the popularity of the zebu elsewhere, it is not hard to imagine the jallikattu ban attempt was part of a competitive strategy by Western cattle breeders involving bio-piracy. It is similar the way olive and sunflower growers created #post-truth about the harmful effects of coconut oil, by getting friendly scientists to compare virgin olive oil to hydrogenated coconut oil and declare the latter harmful: apples to oranges.

Meanwhile, we Indians happily ignore the diamonds in our backyards to vainly chase western chimaeras. Traditional Knowledge Systems preserve many such gems that we don’t recognise.

This article is part of a debate on genetically modified (GM) crops. Swarajya has been hosting both pro and anti-GM views on its platform to foster a healthy debate. You can follow the arguments here.

Rajeev Srinivasan focuses on strategy and innovation, which he worked on at Bell Labs and in Silicon Valley. He has taught innovation at several IIMs. An IIT Madras and Stanford Business School grad, he has also been a conservative columnist for twenty years.

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