Genetically Modified Cattle

GM cattle could aid in the sub-Saharan economy and health

In Africa, farm size is dictated by the number of draught animals a farmer has access to that can assist with producing crops. For example, large farms are classified as those with two or more pairs of draught animals, while small farms are those with only a single pair of draught (working) animals. Farmers that either can’t afford or that can’t have livestock due to animal health problems are forced to rely on manual labour to produce crops.

Map of the epidemic of T. brucei in humans. Source: WHO: Disease Watch Focus: Human African trypanosomiasis
Map of the epidemic of T. brucei in humans.
Source: WHO: Disease Watch Focus: Human African trypanosomiasis

A recent story by National Geographic contributor, Tamar Haspel, identifies just how difficult farming is in Central Africa due, in part, to a fatal virus that affects cattle. The story draws attention to a molecular geneticist (Steve Kemp) at Kenya’s International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), and the research to incorporate a protein into cattle to combat the Trypanosoma brucei (T. brucei) virus, which can be fatal. The World Health Organization explains that T. brucei is a parasite transmitted by tsetse flies, infecting the central nervous system in both livestock and humans and is fatal if left untreated. Because the virus usually kills the infected cattle, farmers in this part of Africa are unable to own cattle to help with their crop production. If Kemp’s research is successful, sub-Sahara African farmers could see changes which would allow them to be able to own cattle, thereby helping to increase their ability to produce food.

Living with draught animals is a hard life

Unfortunately, livestock often do not survive in the sub-Sahara as a result of the fatal effects of the T. brucei protozoan parasite. “That protozoan, called a trypanosome, is the reason one-third of the African continent–an area the size of the United States–is almost completely prevented from keeping livestock”, writes Haspel. Without livestock, 90% of the land is farmed without the use of animals but by hand. Draught animals lessen the rigours of human labour and increase farm productions beyond what a small family farm can produce by hand. The T. brucei parasite is not only killing the regions animal protein sources, it is suppressing potential crop yields; therefore contributing to the malnutrition of the regions 200 million people.

There is hope however, Steve Kemp is optimistic that a genetically modified (GM) cow grazing in the ILRI pasture that is resistant to the fatal parasite, will be a reality by next year. By introducing GM cattle that are resistant to the fatal effects of trypanosome brucei, Africa’s sub-Sahara farmers could have higher yields and farm more land. Agriculture utilizing draught animals’ increases soil conditions, yields, nutrition and profits, all of which would be beneficial to Central Africa, contributing greatly to reducing malnutrition for millions and millions of people.

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