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New research suggests genetic diversity is key to the sustainability of local chicken farming in Africa

The results of a collaborative new study suggest that a more localised and flexible approach could boost the productivity of small-scale chicken farms in Africa. The study also reveals that village chicken populations in Ethiopia are genetically diverse and adapted to their local cultural, physical and social environments. The research recommends that development interventions, including breeding programmes, should consider this diversity, as well as be designed and tailored to the local needs of the village populations.

There is an active interest in breeding chicken populations that are resilient. This is because the production of chicken is an integral part of the African agricultural landscape, therefore villagers need an economically sustainable enterprise. However, a variety of global interventions have proved unable to deliver sustainable improvements thus far.

The research team sought to address this, by investigating disease challenges and the genetics of the chickens in a more regionalised methodology. They also analysed the nature of the production system and the socioeconomic reasons why chickens are bred. The study, which was conducted in two districts of Ethiopia, showed the genetics of village chickens showed high levels of adaptation to their local ecosystems, as well as resistance to disease. The data always suggested that there have been varying factors, including trade routes, religion and culture, have contributed to the vast and varying introduction of chicken populations in Ethiopia.

The research, which was published in Nature Sustainability, was the collaborative efforts of the University of Liverpool, University of Edinburgh, University of Nottingham, the Royal Veterinary College, Wageningen University and the International Livestock Research Institute. Funding support was also provided by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), the UK Department for International Development (DFID) and the Scottish Government.

Professor Rob Christley, who led the project, said:

“The importance of culture and location should not be underestimated. Conventionally, the transfer of technology has often taken a top-down approach – from researchers to farmers – ignoring the considerable knowledge of the farmers. This often leads to interventions that are inappropriate to the social, physical and economic settings in which farmers operate, leading to unsustainable interventions.”

Professor Paul Wigley, from the University’s of Liverpool’s Institute of Infection and Global Health, said:

“That chickens are so locally adapted, despite often appearing similar, does present challenges to increasing productivity.

“There is not a ‘one size fits all’ chicken for Ethiopia or any village system. It could be argued that improvements in management, the use of vaccination and improvements to disease control such as simple biosecurity measures are as important as the genetic potential of the bird. Such measures need improvements in access to information and training.”

Dr Androniki Psifidi, RVC Lecturer in Veterinary Clinical Genetics, said:

“We are extremely pleased with the findings of this study. We sincerely hope that our findings will be used to improve the production and management of chickens in order to create a more sustainable production system for years to come.”