Farm animal diversity: Forgotten in Interlaken?

The first international technical conference on Animal Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, held last week in Interlaken, Switzerland, didn’t get much coverage from the mainstream mediaunfortunately. Despite the fact that, according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, at least one breed of livestock has become extinct every month for the last seven years, most burger-eating, milk-drinking consumers in the U.S. and Europe haven’t taken notice.

But for many millions of livestock keepers in the developing world, the state of farm animal diversity is a matter of life and death. These animals not only provide meat, milk, and eggs, but they also act as walking "credit cards," allowing pastoralists to sell them in times of need. According to the FAO, the top reasons we’re seeing so many animals disappear are: climate change; economic and political upheaval; the increasing reliance on a small number of high-output breeds (like the Holstein-Freistan, the world’s most widespread animal breed); animal diseases like foot and mouth, bovine TB, and avian influenza; and armed conflict in some of the areas richest in animal genetic resources.

Conserving and preserving rare and/or endangered livestock breeds won’t be easy. Such an effort relies on minimizing the power of large agribusiness over livestock genetic resources—including U.S.-based Smithfield Farms; ABS Global, the leading producer of bovine genetics; and Euribrid (a division of the Hendrix Genetic Corporation), which controls a substantial portion of the world’s poultry breeding facilities. (For an understanding of this corporate control, see this excellent PowerPoint from the League for Pastoral Peoples.)

The journal Nature, one of the few magazines that did report on the Interlaken event, focused on efforts to conserve rare breeds from eggs and sperm stored in banks. While this "ex-situ" conservation can be an effective approach, it is extremely costly and not very useful to the people who depend on farm animal agriculture for their livelihoods. A far more effective and productive way for farmers to preserve livestock diversity is on the farm itself. (See Chapter 4, “Cultivating Food Security,” in Worldwatch's State of the World 2005.)

Livestock keepers are also demanding more control over the animal genetic resources they have long developed and conserved. While scientific studies of these animals may be necessary to help conserve their genes, pastoralists must be fully compensated for their efforts to breed animals that are resistant to disease or able to survive in drought-like conditions. This characteristic will become increasingly important as the impacts of climate change become more extreme.