Keeping the “Live” in Livestock

Wired’s Science blog pointed recently to a troubling report on the world’s livestock resources, written by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI). Not only are the industrialized world’s livestock being drawn from a narrow genetic pool—the ILRI says that “90% of cattle in industrialised nations came from only ‘six tightly defined breeds’”—but indigenous breeds in developing countries are dying out: A breed is lost every month, according to estimates. These native animals are being replaced with northern breeds that are more productive but maladapted to the environment. Here’s a dramatic example, as described by the Nairobi-based ILRI:

They warned that Uganda’s indigenous ankole cattle could become extinct within 20 years because it was being displaced by the holstein-friesian, which was able to produce more milk.

However, they said that some farmers had lost their entire herds during a recent drought because the friesians were unable to walk long distances to reach the nearest water supply.

The director of the ILRI put the situation succinctly: In industrialized countries, people have adapted the environment for the animals—sanitized barns, research-derived diets, etc. But “developing nations did not have the resources to adapt the environment, therefore the animals needed to adapt to the environment.” The director is desperate to establish gene banks—eggs, semen, and embryos—of the indigenous breeds before they disappear. It’s a reminder to support those farmers who are keeping heritage breeds extant here.

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