Alarm Raised by Food & Agriculture Organization of the U.N.
December 5, 2000 – EVERY WEEK, THE WORLD LOSES two breeds of its valuable domestic animal diversity, according to estimates just published in the 3rd edition of the World Watch List for Domestic Animal Diversity. The publication, issued by FAO and the United Nations Environment Program, results from ten years of data collection in 170 countries, covering 6500 breeds of domesticated mammals and birds: cattle, goats, sheep, buffalo, yaks, pigs, horses, rabbits, chickens, turkeys, ducks, geese, pigeons and even ostriches.
“In the past 100 years, we have already lost about 1 000 breeds,” says Keith Hammond, Senior Officer of FAO’s Animal Genetic Resources Group. “Our new findings show that domestic animal breeds continue to be in danger: one third are currently at risk of extinction.”
Major Economic Contribution
Domestic farm animals are crucial for food and agriculture, providing 30 to 40 percent of the agricultural sector’s global economic value. Around 2 billion people — one third of the global population — depend at least partly on farm animals for their livelihoods. Meat, milk and egg production will need to more than double over the next 20 years to feed the growing world population.
The FAO Global Databank for Farm Animal Genetic Resources contains information on 6 379 breeds within 30 mammalian and bird species. Data on population size are available for 4 183 breeds. Already, 740 breeds are recorded as extinct, and 1 335, or 32 percent, are classified at high risk of loss and under threat of extinction.
“These are conservative figures”, says Mr Hammond. “Since 1995, the number of mammalian breeds at risk of extinction has risen from 23 to 35 percent”. The situation facing bird breeds is even more serious. The total percentage of breeds at risk of loss increased from 51 percent in 1995 to 63 percent in 1999.
Without adequate action, more than 2 000 domestic animal breeds could be lost within the next two decades. Domestic animal diversity is unique and cannot be replaced. “As much as novel biotechnology may attempt to improve breeds, it is not possible to replace lost diversity”, says Mr Hammond. “Extinction is forever. Biotechnology will not be able to regenerate breeds if they are lost”.
Biggest Threat: Exports from Rich Countries
The greatest threat to domestic animal diversity is the export of animals from developed to developing countries, which often leads to crossbreeding or even replacement of local breeds. In developing countries, breeds from the industrialized world are considered more productive. The problem, however, is that these animals are only suited to conditions of the countries they come from; they can hardly survive under the often harsh environment of developing countries.
“Estimates indicate that 4 000 of the world’s remaining breeds are still popular with farmers, but only about 400 are the subject of breeding programs — almost all of them in developed countries”, says Mr Hammond.
In many countries, there are also no market incentives for farmers to use local breeds. Despite their advantages, these breeds have a negative image because they are not considered as productive as those from developed countries. As a result, they are economically undervalued. “Many developing countries have hot, stressful climates, either dry or humid, that require particular breeds”, says Mr Hammond. “We need to maintain those local breeds. This allows farmers to select stocks or develop new breeds in response to environmental change, diseases and changing consumer demands. Genetic diversity is insurance against future challenges and threats such as famine, drought and epidemics”.
Using as many different breeds as possible is likely to be the most cost-effective way of conserving and developing the animal gene pool for the future. Sustainable development and conservation are critical elements of FAO’s Global Strategy for the Management of Farm Animal Genetic Resources. FAO is now embarking on a major five-year project that will assist countries to evaluate the state of their farm animal genetic resources.
In Madagascar, the Renitelo cattle is nearly extinct. It is particularly well adapted to the different climate zones in Madagascar and provides meat and draught power. In Mexico, the Chiapas sheep has been reared for almost 500 years in the highlands of the State of Chiapas. Indigenous women produce wool for their clothing and for sale. Sheep are considered sacred, and people do not consume lamb or mutton.
In Vietnam, the importance of H’Mong cattle was only discovered in 1997. For many years, these animals have been kept isolated. The breed is very well adapted to mountain regions up to 3 000 meters. The current population is estimated at 14 000 cattle.
In Germany, the HinterwŠlder Rind cattle, found primarily in the Black Forest, is endangered. It is very robust and highly fertile.
In the Russian Federation, the Yakut cattle is adapted to the freezing climate in Siberia. Its numbers are estimated to be less than 1,000.