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Gender bias: India promotes sex selection in cattle to limit birth of male calves

Bulls have become a burden on farmers because growing mechanisation in agriculture has made them near-redundant in the fields.

india Updated: Jul 12, 2017 14:07 IST
Malavika Vyawahare
Malavika Vyawahare
Hindustan Times, New Delhi
Cow,Cattle,Artificial insemination
India has a problem of cattle straying onto streets, and the cow slaughter ban has only compounded it. (Dijeshwar Singh/ HT photo)

The Union government has asked 10 animal husbandry centres to establish sexed semen production facilities to boost milk productivity and tackle the problem of “unwanted male calves” arising from cow slaughter bans in many states of the country.

Sexing technologies allow farmers to control the gender of the calf. Scientists believe the use of sexed semen will result in the birth of nine females to every male because farmers prefer milk-producing cows to bulls.

“Other countries get rid of unproductive male calves by culling them for meat. However, this is not an option in many states of India,” said a scientist at the Central Frozen Semen Production and Training Institute in Bangalore (CFSP&TI) on the condition of anonymity.

Bulls have become a burden on farmers because growing mechanisation in agriculture has made them near-redundant in the fields. They are often abandoned on the streets, where they loiter and eventually starve to death. The environment ministry’s recent rules banning the sale of cattle for slaughter at cattle markets will only aggravate the problem.

Industry sources say installing a sexed semen facility could cost about Rs 200-300 crore over a five-year period. In 2016-17, the agriculture ministry earmarked Rs 500 crore for promoting sexed semen technology in the country. Increased government funding for production will help make doses available to farmers at a reasonable cost.

Narayan Hegde, an advisor at the BAIF Development Research Foundation, believes that the establishment of sexed semen production facilities will benefit Indian farmers to a great degree. “If farmers are able to ensure the birth of more females, it will boost milk production and agricultural income,” he said, adding that BAIF also plans to set up a sexed semen production facility of its own.

The sexed semen will be used to artificially inseminate cows. Around 30% of the cattle in India are artificially inseminated using regular semen, where the chances of birthing a male or female are almost equal.

According to the agriculture ministry, there are 300 million bovines in the country. Of these, only 85 million give milk while the rest – including 84 million males – are “unproductive”. Through the sexed semen programme, the animal husbandry department aims to add six million cows of a superior variety to the milch herd every year.

The CFSP&TI – which comes under the department of animal husbandry in the ministry of agriculture – is one among the 10 centres that plan to establish sexed semen production facilities. Each of these laboratories will produce two lakh gender-specified doses of semen from indigenous bull and buffalo breeds every year.

Calls for global expressions of interest have been issued by the centres. This will be followed by calls for tenders, and the companies that win them will have three months to set up the laboratories. However, nobody seems to know by when the doses will be ready for distribution.

Around 30% of the cattle in India are artificially inseminated using regular semen, and the chances of birthing a male or female are almost equal. (Reuters photo)

“We are only taking baby steps. The technology is proven, but there are ethical issues involved,” the CFSP&TI scientist said. “Ultimately, this amounts to tinkering with nature.” Widespread use of the semen will dramatically change the sex ratio of Indian cattle.

India is the largest milk producer in the world. Its total milk production was 155.5 million tonnes in 2015-16, divided almost evenly among buffaloes and cows. However, the demand for milk is expected to cross 200 million tonnes by 2021-22.

However, a couple of major hurdles stand in the way of adopting the sexed semen technology.

Firstly, the costs are prohibitive and farmers in India may not be ready for it. A dose of sexed semen comes with a price tag of Rs 1,500 while a similar amount of conventional semen costs about Rs 50.

At present, this technology is used only by a few rich farmers who can afford to purchase the doses from foreign companies. These doses come from males of foreign breeds. Opening labs in India will mean producing the doses in India with indigenous bull and buffalo semen.

One of the main reasons for the high cost of sexed semen is the fact that a single US company holds the patents for the most advanced and trustworthy sorting technology. Sexing Technologies (ST Genetics), legally registered as Inguran LLC, has a monopoly over the sexed semen market. “We are the only company that has the technology right now,” a senior official at Sexing Technologies said. “If anyone wants to set up a lab, they will have to use our technology.”

Though the company has been selling sexed semen in India for the past five years, only recently did it see a spurt in orders for their doses. “The demand has always been there,” the Sexing Technologies official said. “We are keen on entering the Indian market and setting up a lab there.”

As the company does not sell or lease out the technology, the labs would be run and managed by Sexing Technologies employees. Their monopoly is facing a legal challenge in the US.

The firm’s technology involves introducing semen cells to a fluorescent dye that reacts differently to female X chromosomes and male Y chromosomes, thereby allowing them to be identified and sorted. Sexing Technologies claims that their sperm has a 90% chance of producing the desired sex.

However, experts say that anybody who invests in the technology will be doing so at a risk. Crores of rupees would become akin to spilt milk if farmers do not readily adopt it.

The ST Genetics official explained that comparing the cost of sexed semen with that of conventional unsorted semen was misguided because the net benefit would depend on the income generated by the female heifer over her lifetime. “Farmers cannot envision its benefits now. They would be grabbing this technology if they only knew how much it will help them,” said Hegde.

First Published: Jul 10, 2017 08:29 IST