A tool for monitoring the biodiversity of Swiss livestock

Blacknose sheep are primarily reared in the Upper Valais. © iStock

Blacknose sheep are primarily reared in the Upper Valais. © iStock

EPFL researchers have created an online platform for monitoring the genetic diversity of livestock and the sustainability of animal farming in Switzerland. This project, which was developed in partnership with the Federal Office for Agriculture, could serve as a model for other countries.

"With the GenMon platform, our aim was to develop a practical tool for automating the process of monitoring livestock in Switzerland," explains Solange Duruz, a PhD student in the Laboratory of Geographic Information Systems (LASIG) and lead author of the article, which appeared in the journal PLOS One. "It’s really important to monitor Swiss livestock breeds because it enables us to maintain their genetic biodiversity and prepare for climate change. Several local breeds, such as the Original Braunvieh or the Evolénarde, may produce less milk than the average Holstein, but they tend to be more resilient to a warmer climate. So they‘re worth preserving.’

Combining numerous criteria
The GenMon app calculates each breed’s position on a vulnerability scale. It combines numerous criteria and incorporates the results of key studies in this field. "What sets GenMon apart is that it looks at geographical, environmental, genetic and socio-economic data simultaneously and estimates how sustainable it is to farm each breed," says Stéphane Joost, a researcher at LASIG and co-author of the study.

The platform works by displaying a map of Switzerland with a score for each breed of various types of livestock (sheep, goats, cattle, horses and pigs). The score is based on five criteria: pedigree, geographical concentration within a region, introgression (the process of uncontrolled entrance of genes from another gene pool through mating with another breed), cryo-conservation plans, and, finally, the sustainability of farming each breed in Switzerland, particularly in light of climate change. This last factor has several sub-criteria: "To assess sustainability, we need, for instance, to get an estimate of the surface area used for livestock breeding - which affects the quality and quantity of food available - and how this surface area changes over time,’ explains Joost. ’We also look at socio-economic aspects, such as demographic projections and the rural exodus." In just a few clicks, Duruz brings up a map of Switzerland showing every commune in which blacknose sheep are bred: A dense region in the Upper Valais appears in red (see map 1). The pedigree score suggests that efforts could be made to diversify this breed.

A project supported by the Federal Office for Agriculture

EPFL developed the GenMon platform with support and advice from the Federal Office for Agriculture (FOAG). The platform was designed to meet one of the recommendations of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). Switzerland is now the only UN member state to have developed a tool for automated livestock monitoring. Its designers say that this flexible and scalable app could be easily adapted to other countries, serving as a model.

The platform now contains information on a large number of Switzerland’s local livestock breeds, with the exception of poultry, rabbits and other small animals. Collecting genetic and geographic data remains nevertheless a complex process. Going forward, the idea is for breeders’ associations to enter data directly into the app themselves. According to Corinne Boss, who is in charge of research and animal production at FOAG, the Swiss government is currently working on a 2030 animal production strategy that should take shape by the end of the year. Monitoring platforms like GenMon could become part of this strategy.

Urgent action needed

Urgent action needs to be taken, which worries the study’s authors. According to Duruz: "Livestock breeding has reached a critical stage because the number of breeders is falling, which means that the biodiversity of local breeds is declining too. We are losing a precious genetic heritage, yet part of my thesis shows that these breeds tend to be very resilient." Joost is also concerned about the situation: "Some Swiss farmers have already started breeding zebu since they expect the land to dry out. But we think that if the platform developed by Solange Duruz is used wisely, that will increase the appeal of local breeds, which are probably better equipped to deal with climate change than other more productive - yet more delicate - breeds."

A WeGIS platform for the monitoring of Farm Animal Genetic Resources (GENMOM), Solange Duruz, Christine Flury, Giona Matasci, Florent Joerin, Ivo Widmer, Stéphane Joost, PLOS One, 28 April 2017