The bad news is what FAO's latest analysis of those data reveals: of the domestic animal breeds for which precise population data exist, at least one-third - a total of 1,350 - are at risk of extinction, 119 are officially confirmed as extinct and another 620 are reported to be so. "If anything, these are conservative figures", says Keith Hammond, responsible for FAO's Global Databank for Farm Animal Genetic Resources. "Over the past five years, the number of mammalian breeds at risk of extinction has risen from 23% to 35%. The situation with avian breeds is even more serious, with the total percentage of those at risk of being lost increasing from 51% in 1995 to 63% in 1999."
WWL-DAD:3. The increasingly grim outlook for those livestock breeds - and for the farmers who depend on them - is detailed in the third edition of the FAO/UNEP World watch list for domestic animal diversity, released in December 2000. Known in-house as WWL-DAD:3, the 726-page volume provides a detailed inventory of domestic breeds, both globally and in each of the world's regions, highlighting those at risk. It points out that this biological diversity is being lost as human population and economic pressures accelerate the pace of change in traditional agricultural systems.
"Maintaining animal genetic diversity allows farmers to select stocks or develop new breeds in response to environmental change, disease threats, consumer demand, changing market conditions and societal needs, all of which are largely unpredictable," says Beate Scherf, who compiled the WWL-DAD:3. "Genetic diversity also represents a storehouse of largely untested potential - wild relatives of common breeds, in particular, may contain valuable but, as yet, unknown resources that could be useful now and in the future."
The FAO databank provides these quick profiles of what could be lost in the decade ahead:
Breed choice is also influenced by credit schemes, exchange rates, producer prices, inflation and interest rates. Many countries provide direct subsidies on feed and other inputs - which tend to favour exotic breeds - and indirect subsidies on production inputs, such as fuel and fertilizer to produce concentrate feed.
It may take years before farmers, initially enthusiastic about the "improved breeds", begin to appreciate the significance of the local breed loss. "Improved breeds have been primarily developed under comparatively high input, low-stress production environments," Hammond says. "The accumulating evidence suggests that much, though not all, of this major animal genetic resource assistance effort has been in vain. Farmers gradually realize that this exotic genetic material is actually inferior in their local environment. Very different cost structures, shortages of quality feed resources and low technical and management capacity mean that stock in many developing countries must survive, reproduce and produce for more years than the exotic breeds were designed for."
Knowledge gap. In fact, says Hammond, "our level of ignorance about the vast majority of the world's animal genetic resources" remains a major obstacle. "A serious issue for good management of animal genetic resources in most countries is the extremely limited technical documentation available for decision making on breed use. While local communities generally possess extensive knowledge of the observable characteristics of their breeds, there is negligible documented research data for about 85% of all breeds and even less sound breed-comparison information."
The real value of genetic diversity may not be properly reflected in current choices of breeds and associated technologies. "Breeds that utilize low-value feeds, or survive in harsh environments, or have tolerance to, or resistance against, specific diseases may realize large future benefits," Keith Hammond argues. "And the complete cost of exotic genetic material must be fully considered. Genetic material is often donated or provided at low cost to speed up 'genetic improvement' in developing countries - but progress toward what breeding goal? Will this 'quick fix' development be sustainable?" How many of those 1,350 domestic animal breeds now at risk will disappear before that question is finally answered?
Published December 2000