Local livestock breeds at risk
Indigenous animals are dying out as commercial breeds sweep the world.
Many of the world's indigenous livestock breeds are in danger of dying out as commercial breeds take over, according to a worldwide inventory of animal diversity. Their extinction would mean the loss of genetic resources that help animals overcome disease and drought, particularly in the developing world, say livestock experts.
"Valuable breeds are disappearing at an alarming rate," says Carlos Seré, director general of the International Livestock Research Institute in Nairobi, Kenya, one of the organizations involved in the survey. The entire inventory, compiled by the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization, contains details of some 7,600 breeds of cattle, pigs, sheep, poultry and other animals in 169 countries.
The survey reports that 11% of the investigated breeds are now extinct (some having disappeared many decades ago), 16% are currently at risk, 38% are unthreatened, and the security of the remaining 35% is unknown.
Discussing the findings at a meeting of policy-makers, breeders and livestock scientists in Interlaken, Switzerland, Seré called for the establishment of 'gene banks' containing frozen sperm and eggs from endangered breeds, similar to the facilities currently being set up to preserve the world's crop strains.
But the dominance of big breeding companies, mostly based in industrialized countries, means that these populations are being supplanted by the most common commercial breeds. Holstein-Friesian cattle, the stereotypical black-and-white dairy cow, are now found in more than 120 countries throughout the world.
The spread of such animals means that many farmers are now working with livestock that are poorly adapted to their environment, Seré says. "Until recently, natural selection allowed animals to adapt, but now a lot of this is falling through the cracks," he says.
The pursuit of high-yielding animals means that genetic diversity is in crisis even in the established commercial breeds, says Shirley Ellis of the Institute for Animal Health in Compton, UK. She estimates that the roughly one billion Holstein-Friesians in the world were sired by the same few dozen bulls in North America. The advent of cloning for the most prized males will make the inbreeding problem worse still, she says.
Exporting strains such as Holstein-Friesians to the developing world is short-sighted, experts point out. "They don't cope very well with local climate and diseases," Ellis says.
Banking for the future
Gene banks to preserve local diversity should be set up in the areas where this genetic diversity is found, argues Seré. He wants to see an international effort to raise perhaps US$2 million to begin the process of establishing either national or regional centres for storing genetic material. "Many rich countries are already setting up genetic stores, but we don't have it in the south where it's needed," he says.
The main threat facing local livestock is the pre-eminence of short-termism in livestock breeding, and the fact that it is controlled by large Western companies, Seré says. But the political volatility of much of the developed world also plays a part, he argues.
In the wake of human conflicts such as the Darfur crisis, in which livestock were slaughtered by marauding militias, aid agencies can only replace these animals with Western breeds, Seré points out. But such animals are less valuable to local farmers in the long run.
Preserving the genetic heritage of indigenous breeds could also save breeders the trouble of trying to promote traits, such as drought-tolerance, from scratch. "Breeding is sophisticated, but it's cheaper to spot a breed that can do the job already," Seré says. "Nature may have already produced what you need."