The Holstein—the archetypal American dairy cow, whose black and white splotches are practically imprinted on the hills of Wisconsin—can now be seen in an unlikely place: the grasslands of Uganda. According to a well-told story in the New York Times Magazine, over the last decade the Holstein, pushed by USAID and the World Bank, has gradually displaced the native longhorn cattle, a breed called the Ankole.
The Ankole are perfectly adapted to their environment: They’re rugged and evolutionarily equipped to deal with almost anything. The Holstein often have to be medicated just to survive in Uganda, but they produce far more milk—20 to 30 times more. Many rural Ugandans, seeing wealth in the Holstein, have switched over to the breed. (So many, in fact, that the local market is now flooded with milk and prices have dropped.)
The story documents a frightening trend: the loss of traditional livestock breeds and therefore genetic variation. (The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization warned recently of the potential collapse of the world’s livestock breeds, specifically noting the plight of the Ankole.) But their loss is heartbreaking for a different reason. The nomadic herding tribe of Uganda, the Bahima, have traditionally held the Ankole in extraordinarily high esteem. Before Christianity arrived, “the Bahima made offerings of milk to herdsman gods,” and many farmers have kept Ankole simply for sentimental reasons. “They are naturally good,” a farmer says in the article. “They are beautiful. In our culture we preferred these. But then we developed another culture, from Western culture.”