Rare breeds of livestock face extinction

The world’s livestock production has become dangerously over-reliant on just a few high-yielding breeds, causing the loss of many hardier breeds more suited to poor countries, according to a report by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation.

In its first survey of the world’s animal genetic resources, the FAO says 20 per cent of the more than 7,600 breeds of farm animals and poultry it has identified are at risk of extinction. Almost one breed has been lost every month over the past six years.

Carlos Seré, director general of the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), a publicly funded Nairobi-based research network, on Monday called for the rapid establishment of gene banks, especially in Africa, to conserve the sperm and eggs of animals at risk.

“Valuable breeds are disappearing at an alarming rate,” he told an international technical conference on animal genetic resources in Interlaken, Switzerland. “In many cases we will not even know the true value of an existing breed until it is already gone. This is why we need to act now to conserve what’s left by putting them in gene banks.”

The FAO report, which surveyed livestock in nearly 170 countries, found that the black-and-white Holstein-Friesian dairy cow is now found in 128 countries around the world, while 90 per cent of cattle in industrialised nations come from only six tightly defined breeds.

Developing countries account for nearly 70 per cent of the world’s remaining unique livestock breeds but these are being rapidly supplanted by higher yielding stock imported from Europe and the US.

In northern Vietnam, for instance, local breeds comprised nearly three-quarters of the sow population in 1994 but by 2000 this proportion had dropped to only a quarter.

Mr Seré says despite the short-term benefits this strategy poses high risks because many of these breeds cannot cope with developing country conditions.

The ILRI points to the example of Uganda where, during a recent drought, farmers that had kept their hardy Ankole cattle were able to walk them long distances to water sources, while those who had traded the Ankole for Holstein-Friesians and other imported breeds lost their entire herds.

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