The rapid spread of large-scale industrial livestock production
focussed on a narrow range of breeds is the biggest threat to the
world’s farm animal diversity, according to a report presented
this week to the Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture.
Surging global demand for meat, milk and eggs has led to heavy
reliance on high-output animals intensively bred to supply uniform
products, according to The State of the World’s Animal Genetic
Resources for Food and Agriculture. The problem is compounded by
the ease with which genetic material can now be moved around the
world, says the report, which draws on information from 169 countries.
“In the next 40 years, the world’s population will
rise from today’s 6.2 billion to 9 billion, with all the
growth occurring in the developing countries,” said FAO Assistant
Director-General Alexander Müller in his address to the Commission. “We
need to increase the resilience of our food supply, by maintaining
and deploying the widest possible portfolio of genetic resources,
which are vital and irreplaceable.”
“Global warming is an additional threat to all genetic resources,
increasing the pressure on biodiversity,” Müller adds. “Yet
we need these genetic resources for the adaptation of agriculture
to climate change.”
Time is running out
“One livestock breed a month has become extinct over the
past seven years, and time is running out for one-fifth of the
world’s breeds of cattle, goats, pigs, horses and poultry,” says
Müller. “This report, the first-ever global overview
of livestock biodiversity and of the capacity within countries
to manage their animal genetic resources, is a wake-up call to
And this may only be a partial picture of the genetic erosion
taking place, according to the report, as breed inventories are
inadequate in many parts of the world. Moreover, among many of
the most widely used high-output breeds of cattle, within-breed
genetic diversity is being undermined by the use of a few highly
popular sires for breeding.
“Effective management of animal genetic diversity is essential
to global food security, sustainable development and the livelihoods
of millions of people,” says Irene Hoffmann, Chief of FAO's
Animal Production Service.
“While sometimes less productive, many breeds at risk of
extinction have unique characteristics, such as disease resistance
or tolerance to climatic extremes, which future generations may
need to draw on to cope with challenges such as climate change,
emerging animal diseases and rising demand for specific livestock
products,” Hoffmann adds.
Some breeds are more equal
Well-adapted livestock have been an essential element of agricultural
production systems for more than 10 000 years, especially important
in harsh environments where crop farming is difficult or impossible.
Since the mid-twentieth century, a few high-performance breeds,
usually of European descent – including Holstein-Friesian
(by far the most widespread breed, reported in at least 128 countries
and in all regions of the world) and Jersey cattle; Large White,
Duroc and Landrace pigs; Saanen goats; and Rhode Island Red and
Leghorn chickens – have spread throughout the world, often
crowding out traditional breeds.
This progressive narrowing of genetic diversity is largely complete
in Europe and North America and is now occurring in many developing
countries, which have so far retained a large number of their indigenous
Hotspot of breed diversity loss
The developing world will be the hotspot of breed diversity loss
in the twenty-first century, according to the report.
In Viet Nam, for example, the percentage of indigenous sows declined
from 72 percent of the total population in 1994 to only 26 percent
in 2002. Of its 14 local breeds, five breeds are vulnerable, two
in a critical state and three are facing extinction.
In Kenya, introduction of the Dorper sheep has caused the almost
complete disappearance of pure-bred Red Maasai sheep.
Conservation programmes lacking
The crowding out of local breeds is set to accelerate in many
developing countries, unless special provisions are made for their
sustainable use and conservation by providing livestock keepers
with adequate support, the report warns.
Effective management of animal genetic diversity requires resources – including
well-trained personnel and adequate technical facilities – which
many developing countries lack. According to the report, 48 percent
of the world’s countries report no national in vivo conservation
programmes, and 63 percent report that they have no in vitro programmes,
that is, the conservation of embryos, semen or other genetic material,
with the potential to reconstitute live animals at a later date.
Similarly, in many countries, structured breeding programmes are
absent or ineffective.
“Support for developing countries and countries with economies
in transition to characterize, conserve and utilize their livestock
breeds will be necessary,” says Clive Stannard of the Commission
on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture. “Frameworks
for wide access to animal genetic resources, and for equitable
sharing of the benefits derived from them, need to be put in place,
both at national and international levels.”
Protecting our common heritage
At this week’s meeting of FAO’s Commission on Genetic
Resources – the only international institution dealing with
all genetic resources in agriculture, forestry and fisheries – experts
from around the world are expected to endorse the findings of the
report, which will be formally launched at the International Technical
Conference on Animal Genetic Resources in Interlaken, Switzerland,
in September 2007.
The Interlaken conference is expected to adopt a global plan of
action to halt the loss of animal genetic resources and improve
their sustainable use, development and conservation.
British Blonde Heifers Exported to Poland
Genetic 'Noah's Ark' strategy launched for the country's farm animals
Breeds Survival Trust Online: Conservation in Action
Rare Breeds 'Watchlist': Good News And Bad