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The revelations were made in the World Watch List for Domestic Animal Diversity, issued by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), on 5 December. The conclusions come from 10 years of data collection in 170 countries, covering 6,500 breeds of domesticated mammals and birds.

“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.” The report says that since 1995, the number of mammalian breeds at risk of extinction has risen from 23% to 35%, and the situation facing bird breeds is even more serious. The total percentage of breeds at risk of loss increased from 51% in 1995 to 63% in 1999.

Among the breeds most at risk of extinction include the Renitelo cattle from Madagascar, which is “nearly extinct”; the Chiapas sheep from Mexico, the H’Mong cattle from Vietnam; the Hinterwälder Rind cattle from Germany and the Russian Yakut cattle, which is adapted to the freezing climate in Siberia, but numbers less than 1,000.

The organisations say that the greatest threat to domestic animal diversity is the export of animals from developed to developing countries, which often leads to crossbreeding or replacement of local breeds. In developing countries, breeds from the industrialised world are considered more productive, although these animals may be unsuited to their new environment. “Many developing countries have hot, stressful climates, either dry or humid, that require particular breeds,” Hammond said. “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.”

The organisations say that 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. FAO is now embarking on a major five-year project that will assist countries to evaluate the state of their farm animal genetic resources. “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 programmes, almost all of them in developed countries,” Hammond said.

The UN organisations say that domestic farm animals provide 30 to 40% of the global agricultural sector’s global economic value, and that around one third of the world’s population depends 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, they say.

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