Experts Urge Gene Bank of Rare Livestock Breeds to Ensure Healthy Diversity
GENEVA -- Precious genetic material that could protect farm animals from future threats posed by disease and climate change might be lost unless action is taken to protect rare breeds from extinction, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization said Monday.
In a 500-page report presented to delegates at the start of an international livestock conference, the U.N. organization urged countries to adopt a 10-year plan to save hundreds of indigenous varieties -- particularly in Asia and Africa -- that are currently under threat from the relentless march of high-yield breeds such as Holstein-Friesian cows and White Leghorn chickens.
"The genetic erosion we are seeing is a matter of concern," the director of the organization's animal production and health division, Samuel Jutzi, told The Associated Press in a telephone interview before the meeting in Interlaken, Switzerland.
According to the report 16 percent of all 7,600 known breeds of cattle, pigs, sheep, chickens, ducks and other farm animal species are at risk.
Only about 38 percent of breeds are unthreatened, while 11 percent have already disappeared and the health of the remaining 35 percent is unknown, the report says.
"The likelihood is quite high that a large proportion of those (unstudied) breeds is also under threat, but we cannot make this assessment because we don't have the necessary statistics," Jutzi said.
The Food and Agriculture Organization is proposing to step up monitoring of rare breeds, especially in developing countries where the majority of them are found. A similar plan was put in place for plant species in 1996.
The report says farmers in Asia and Africa are under growing pressure to increase production of milk, meat and other agricultural products, leading them to choose non-native breeds over local varieties.
As a result, breeds which have over centuries developed unique characteristics such as resistance to disease and extreme climate conditions are being lost.
Jutzi said one measure to preserve these vital traits would be to establish national or regional gene banks, which could in future be used to reinsert useful characteristics into the herd -- or flock -- when needed.
"With a wider genetic base it's more likely you will find genes which will respond to the challenge of new diseases or climate change," he said.
The view was echoed by Carlos Sere, director-general of the Nairobi-based International Livestock Research Institute.
"Africa has a high diversity of livestock breeds and a high risk of losses," he said, adding that freezing semen, eggs and embryos in liquid nitrogen tanks was an uncomplicated and cheap way of preserving useful genes for hundreds of years.
"In the long run the benefits of having a genetic insurance are probably going to help developed countries as much as developing countries," Sere said. "Everybody should be interested in it."
Among the breeds the International Livestock Research Institute says are most at risk are the Ankole cattle, whose drought resistance and rich milk made them prized animals in East and Central Africa until the arrival of European dairy cows.
Similarly, the Red Maasai sheep of East Africa, which have developed genetic resistance to a common parasite, have almost disappeared since the introduction of Dorper sheep from South Africa 15 years ago, the research institute says.
Rich countries have already recognized the importance of maintaining a diverse gene pool, the U.N. report says.
Farmers in the Swiss canton (state) of Valais are cultivating a breed of cattle known as Evolene Cow, famed for its robustness and fierce nature.
Tamworth pigs, known for their lean meat, have also won favor with breeders in the United States and Britain who want to preserve them for crossbreeding with more common porcine varieties.
Jutzi said food connoisseurs and advocates of organic farming had given rare breeds in the developed world a lifeline, though he questioned whether this was likely to happen in developing countries.
An independent expert not attending the conference told The Associated Press that preserving genetic diversity was a prudent step irrespective of whether new diseases or climate change actually affect farming.
"It's so difficult to second guess what the future may hold. Livestock types that may have little value now may have great value in the future for any number of reasons," Glenn Selk, a professor of animal science at Oklahoma State University, said.
On the Web:
Food and Agriculture Organization: http://www.fao.org/
International Livestock Research Institute: http://www.ilri.org/
Source: Associated Press