Calling the rate of livestock breed extinctions “alarming”,
FAO today urged the international community to adopt a global
plan of action to stem erosion of the world’s farm animal
diversity and protect the global food supply.
“Wise management of the world’s animal genetic resources
is of ever greater importance,” said FAO Assistant Director-General
Alexander Müller, addressing participants at the first International
Technical Conference on Animal Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture
“The options that these resources offer for maintaining
and improving animal production will be of enormous significance
in the coming decades,” he said. “Climate change and
the emergence of new and virulent livestock diseases highlight
the importance of retaining the capacity to adapt our agricultural
Livestock breeding is crucial in this respect, FAO believes.
Many breeds at risk of extinction have unique characteristics
that may be useful in confronting these and other challenges in
the years to come, FAO says. Traits such as resistance to disease
or adaptation to climatic extremes could prove fundamental to the
food security of future generations.
Moreover, widely used breeds need to be managed more wisely. Among
many of these breeds, within-breed genetic diversity is being undermined
by the use of a few highly popular sires for breeding.
According to FAO’s State of the World’s Animal Genetic
Resources report, at least one livestock breed a month has become
extinct over the past seven years, which means its genetic characteristics
have been lost forever.
Around 20 percent of the world’s breeds of cattle, goats,
pigs, horses and poultry are currently at risk of extinction, according
to the report, the first global assessment of livestock biodiversity
and of the capacity of countries to manage their animal genetic
“In this situation, the world cannot simply take a business-as-usual,
wait-and-see attitude,” said Müller. “Climate
change means that we are entering a period of unprecedented uncertainty
and crisis, which will affect every country.”
Müller highlighted climate change as a significant factor
to be added to many other threats to livestock breeds. These include
rapid, poorly regulated economic and social changes; increasing
reliance on a small number of high-output breeds; animal diseases;
and poverty, socio-economic instability and armed conflict in some
of the areas richest in animal genetic resources.
He said that urgent action was required to improve opportunities,
through appropriate policies and technologies, for the better utilization
of animal genetic diversity. Sustainable use and genetic improvement
are therefore key components of the global plan of action as they
largely determine the opportunities for genetic resources conservation.
Breed characterization is equally important, Müller said,
and gaps and weaknesses in developing countries’ abilities
to inventory, characterize, conserve and use their livestock breeds
must be addressed.
“Although animal genetic resources are important for everyone,
they are particularly important for many livelihoods in developing
countries, often of the very poorest,” said Müller.
He stressed the need for governments to assist poor livestock keepers,
who are the custodians of a large proportion of animal genetic
Representatives of over 120 countries are meeting in Interlaken
to negotiate and adopt a Global Plan of Action for Animal Genetic
Resources. The plan will comprise strategic priority areas as well
as provisions for implementation and financing.
“The Interlaken Conference represents a historic opportunity
for the international community to make strategic choices regarding
the future management of animal genetic resources and to reach
a consensus on priority measures for their sustainable use, development
and conservation,” said Swiss Federal Councillor for Economic
Affairs Doris Leuthard at the opening of the meeting.
She highlighted Swiss efforts to protect the country’s rich
animal diversity, which includes around 90 breeds of cattle, horses,
pigs, sheep and goats, but acknowledged that not all countries
have the resources necessary to support such conservation efforts.
The Swiss Government will continue to support FAO’s efforts
and cooperate within appropriate international fora, she said.
“Interlaken is an important step,” Ms Leuthard said, “but
it is only a step. The road is long and much remains to be done.”
Over 300 policy-makers, scientists, breeders and livestock keepers
are expected to attend the meeting, organized by FAO and hosted
by the Government of Switzerland, which runs from 3-7 September.
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