Researchers Warn of Livestock Extinctions
NAIROBI - Over-reliance on just a few breeds of imported farm animals is putting others in poor countries at risk of extinction, researchers warned on Monday and called for the urgent creation of livestock gene banks.
Dependence on a handful of breeds like high milk-yielding Holstein-Friesian cows, egg-laying White Leghorn chickens and fast-growing Large White pigs is causing the loss of one breed on average every month, U.N. Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) scientists say.
"Valuable breeds are disappearing at an alarming rate," said Carlos Sere, director general of the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) based in Nairobi, Kenya.
"In many cases we will not even know the true value of an existing breed until it's already gone. This is why we need to act now to conserve what's left by putting them in gene banks."
Sere is keynote speaker at a major conference on Monday on animal genetic resources in Interlaken, Switzerland, where the findings of the latest FAO research will be presented.
The ILRI says 90 percent of cattle in industrialized countries come from only six very tightly defined breeds.
And many of the world's smallholder farmers are increasingly abandoning traditional animals in favor of higher yielding stock imported from Europe and the United States.
Sere says these exotic breeds offer short term benefits by promising high volumes of meat, milk or eggs. But he warns many of these breeds are ill-equipped to cope with unpredictable changes in foreign environments, or with outbreaks of disease.
LOCAL BREEDS SUFFER
Scientists predict Uganda's indigenous Ankole cattle -- easily recognizable for their huge horns -- could be extinct within two decades because they are being rapidly supplanted by Holstein-Friesians, which produce much more milk.
In northern Vietnam, local pig breeds accounted for nearly three-quarters of the sow population in 1994, researchers say, but that has now dropped to just 26 percent.
The ILRI says rich nations built their economies significantly through livestock production and that there is no sign that developing countries will be any different.
One billion people are involved in animal farming worldwide, it estimates, and more than two-thirds of the rural poor depend on livestock as an important part of their livelihoods.
"For the foreseeable future, farm animals will continue to create means for hundreds of millions of people to escape absolute poverty," Sere said in a statement.
The breeds most at risk are in Africa, Asia and Latin America, and he proposed steps including encouraging farmers there to maintain a variety of indigenous stock, letting them move animals over borders to escape droughts, civil strife, market fluctuations or disease, and setting up gene banks.
"In the U.S., Europe, China, India and South America there are well-established gene banks actively preserving regional livestock diversity," Sere said.
"Sadly, Africa has been left wanting and that absence is sorely felt right now because this is one of the regions with the richest remaining diversity and is likely to be a hotspot of breed losses in this century."