Art and Science Unite to Serve Ethiopian Farmers - Project by Koen Vanmechelen

Sunday, April 29, 2018
Art and Science Unite to Serve Ethiopian Farmers - Project by Koen Vanmechelen

Scientists and government officials, who are committed to developing healthy, productive chickens for Ethiopian farmers and consumers, joined forces with an artist dedicated to developing biocultural diversity, to launch “Incubated Worlds,” a unique combination of art and science that aims to improve nutrition and incomes in East Africa with disease-resistant, climate-resilient poultry.

Scientists and government officials, who are committed to developing healthy, productive chickens for Ethiopian farmers and consumers, joined forces with an artist dedicated to developing biocultural diversity, to launch “Incubated Worlds,” a unique combination of art and science that aims to improve nutrition and incomes in East Africa with disease-resistant, climate-resilient poultry.

Enhancing Africa’s rich genetic diversity with 20 generations of chicken breeds from around the world
Incubated Worlds is first and foremost an advanced poultry research and breeding facility that emerged from the African Chicken Genetic Gains(ACGG) project, an initiative that is tapping the rich genetic diversity found in poultry to provide more opportunities for rural poultry producers—the majority of whom are women—to earn a decent living and raise healthy, well-nourished families. Partners in Ethiopia include the Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research (EIAR), Ethiopia’s Haramaya University, and the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), the latter of which is part of the CGIAR global research partnership.

Adding a new dimension to the project is Belgian artist Koen Vanmechelen. His 20-year-long artistic odyssey has involved creating some 20 generations of chickens that combine traits from breeds from around the world, including several from across Europe and the Americas, in addition to indigenous chickens from China, Egypt, Senegal, Indonesia and Cuba. Vanmechelen’s artistic crossbreeding project has culminated in an exceptional bird he calls the Cosmopolitan Chicken, which livestock experts say is also a potential treasure trove of valuable genetic traits. 

We wanted to combine Ethiopia’s new poultry research facility with Vanmechelen’s fascinating art installation because he conveys the importance of the genetic diversity in livestock in ways that science alone simply cannot,” said ILRI Director General Jimmy Smith. “By undertaking this work, we aim to develop productive, resilient poultry for a part of the world where demand for livestock products is rising rapidly and climate change is undermining agricultural productivity.”

Debuting the world’s “most intriguing” poultry facility, rich in culture and science
The opening of Incubated Worlds will feature an address by HE Professor Fekadu Beyene, Ethiopia’s Minister for Livestock and Fisheries, in addition to remarks from artist Vanmechelen and ILRI Director General Smith. The art installation component of Incubated Worlds includes photographs, videos and books that provide insights into the complex genetics of both Vanmechelen’s many generations of poultry and an indigenous Ethiopian village chicken. The genomes of both birds have been sequenced by scientists to study their wide variety of genetic traits. The scientists and artist say they want to give the public a greater appreciation of the importance of genetic diversity to the economy and well-being of the country.

This is going to be the most intriguing poultry facility in the world,” Vanmechelen said. “I see it as a place where people can immediately understand that this very global farm animal—one found in almost every country in the world and acceptable as food in every religion—is the product of many, many local communities. And if we don’t maintain and value this cosmopolitan heritage, then we could lose it.”

Vanmechelen’s Cosmopolitan Chicken installations have been featured in major exhibitions in galleries from New York to London. As part of the Incubated Worlds facility in Addis, Vanmechelen has installed large chicken portraits representing the diversity and heritage of his Cosmopolitan Chicken. Just inside the entrance, visitors will find two of Vanmechelen’s Book of Genomes. They include the genetic code, produced both in English and transcribed into Ethiopia’s Amharic language, of the first Ethiopian chicken to have its genome sequenced and the DNA code of the 20th generation of the Cosmopolitan Chicken. The book displays are enhanced by two accompanying video installations at the facility depicting a multitude of people reading the Ethiopian chicken’s genetic code in Amharic and that of the Cosmopolitan Chicken in a variety of other languages.

Breeding the Ethiopian African Planetary Community Chicken
In preparation for the Incubated Worlds installation, ILRI livestock geneticists Tadelle Dessie and Olivier Hanotte worked with the EIAR to import and hatch several of Vanmechelen’s Cosmopolitan Chickens. These chickens will be crossed with indigenous breeds of chickens preferred by farmers in Ethiopia to create what Vanmechelen and his scientist partners are calling the Ethiopian African Planetary Community Chicken. Crossbreeding enriches the diversity of the local flock, helping strengthen poultry resilience and local food systems. This approach seeks to to broaden, replenish and conserve the genetic base of Ethiopian chickens. 

“What we ultimately want through Incubated Worlds are chickens that have the genetic diversity they need both to survive devastating poultry diseases and to adapt to a changing climate all while still producing a lot of food for farmers,” Dessie said.

“Every generation of his chickens seems to be healthier than the last, but they haven’t been selected for productivity,” Hanotte said. “Our challenge is now to incorporate this diversity in a chicken for Ethiopians that is also very productive.”

Growing incomes and improving nutrition in Ethiopia
While ILRI hopes Incubated Worlds makes the subject of livestock diversity engaging and stimulating, the Ethiopian facility is also a response to food insecurity in the region. With new research demonstrating that just one egg a day can prevent stunting and enhance the brain development of young children, the poultry facility is a great opportunity to improve nutrition in Ethiopia. The work of this facility will support Ethiopia’s ongoing fight to prevent childhood stunting, which has already been reduced by a third since 2010.

Meanwhile, in Ethiopia, Africa’s second most populous state with one of the region’s largest livestock sector, demand for milk, meat and eggs—for domestic consumption and export—is rising rapidly.

Part of the work at Incubated Worlds will involve bringing in farmer associations to study more efficient breeding practices and to learn about the latest improvements in feeding and raising chickens to help them develop and grow viable poultry businesses.

Of all livestock, poultry production can be scaled up to meet household nutritional needs far more affordably and sustainably than other types of farm animals,” said ILRI’s Smith. “We want our poultry work in Ethiopia to serve as a model for how livestock can be a source of economic growth and propersity and a way to improve household incomes and nutrition that can be particularly beneficial for women farmers, who typically invest their earnings from poultry in feeding their families and educating their children.”

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