"Rare Breeds of Farm Animals Face Extinction"

The title above is the headline of a story in Science Daily, which reports on the recommendations of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), which in turn cites a recent report by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

The FAO report found that over-reliance on a few highly productive livestock breeds, such as Holstein-Friesian cows, White Leghorn chickens, and Large White pigs, is leading to the extinction of roughly one uncommon livestock breed per month. Nearly 70% of the unique breeds are in developing countries.

The reason for concern is lack of biodiversity among the popular breeds. The article notes, “An astonishing 90 percent of cattle in industrialized countries come from only six very tightly defined breeds.”

Breeds optimised for productivity aren’t optimised for other factors, such as sturdiness:

Scientists predict that Uganda’s indigenous Ankole cattle–famous for their graceful and gigantic horns–could face extinction within 20 years because they are being rapidly supplanted by Holstein-Friesians, which produce much more milk. During a recent drought, some farmers that had kept their hardy Ankole were able to walk them long distances to water sources while those who had traded the Ankole for imported breeds lost their entire herds.

[Carlos] Seré [Director General of International Livestock Research Institute] notes that exotic animal breeds offer short-term benefits to their owners because they promise high volumes of meat, milk, or eggs, but he warned that they also pose a high risk because many of these breeds cannot cope with unpredictable fluctuations in the environment or disease outbreaks when introduced into more demanding environments in the developing world.

The report’s recommendations:

A first strategy is to encourage farmers to keep genetic diversity “on the hoof,” which means maintaining a variety of indigenous breeds on farms. In his speech, Seré called for the use of market-incentives and good public policy that make it in the farmer’s self-interest to maintain diversity.

Another way to encourage “keeping it on the hoof,” Seré said, is by allowing greater mobility of livestock breeds across national borders. When it comes to livestock, farmers have to “move it or lose it,” he said. Wider distribution of breeds and access to them makes it less likely that particular breeds and populations will be wiped out by fluctuations in the market, civil strife, natural disasters, or disease outbreaks.

The third approach that Seré is championing is a longer term one with great future potential for resource-poor farmers. It goes by the name of “landscape genomics” and it combines advanced genomic and geographical mapping techniques to predict which breeds are best suited to which environments and circumstances around the world.

But for landscape genomics–or any of the other approaches–to work, of course, scientists will need a wide variety of livestock genetic diversity to work with. For this reason, the fourth approach Seré is advocating is long-term insurance to “put some in the bank,” by establishing genebanks to store semen, eggs, and embryos of farm animals.

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