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Press Release 99/58


Rome, 10 October - Europe's traditional animal breeds are some of the most threatened animal genetic resources in the world, says a UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) report submitted to the FAO European Commission on Agriculture (ECA*). However, linking certain breeds with specific animal food products, in some cases has successfully contributed to a better conservation and utilisation of local breeds in Europe, FAO said. The report will be discussed at the next meeting of the FAO/ECA in Rome, 12-14 October.

Maintaining animal genetic resources provides an insurance policy to enable farmers to respond to diseases, parasites, and environmental conditions such as temperature, humidity, and shortage of food and water. In many cases, rapid replacement of locally-adapted genetic resources has occurred before their value to present and future generations was properly evaluated.

Erosion of animal genetic resources has been greatest in developed countries. Intensification of animal production and improvement of breeding methods resulted in the development of a limited number of high-input, short life cycle breeds, FAO said.

According to the Domestic Animal Diversity Information System (DAD-IS) which FAO is developing for use of its Members, there are between 4,500 and 5,500 domestic farm animal breeds worldwide. FAO estimates that 30 percent of the world's domestic animal breeds are currently at risk of extinction.

Europe accounts for 26.8 percent of the world's domestic mammalian and 57.6 percent of poultry breeds, currently at risk of extinction. Of the 2,238 European breeds registered by the FAO database DAD-IS, 467 or 22 percent have approached a critical population size, 729 breeds (34 percent) are classified as endangered and 957 breeds (44 percent) are considered not to be at risk of being lost.

There are several European initiatives for successful long-term maintenance and conservation of local breeds through the market. The preferred approach for the conservation of animal genetic resources for food and agriculture is when live animals are kept within their production system. FAO stresses that wise use is the most desirable form of conservation. In Iceland, for example, the "Settler Hen" which was a highly endangered breed, has recently increased to 3,000 hens because the high quality of its products was recognized.

A similar rebirth of interest should be created for the Danish "Skalborg Hen", FAO said. The Skalborg Hen seems to be well adapted to free range management systems. Western Europeans increasingly seem to prefer eggs produced in non-cage systems.

In pig breeding, the trend to move to more extensive systems, to ensure animal welfare and provide higher product quality, requires a specific breeding stock. Good grazing and high fertility and mothering abilities, much appreciated in extensive systems, have been preserved only in a limited number of local breeds, like the "Saddleback Pig" in the UK.

The population of the "Reggiana Cattle" in Italy increased from 500 animals in the 1980s to nearly 1,200 in 1998. This can be directly attributed to consumer appreciation of a new brand of Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, which is made exclusively from milk obtained from Reggiana cows.

Of the 65 cheeses with AOC status (Appellation d'origine contrôlée) produced in France, Italy, Portugal, and Spain, 15 must be produced from milk obtained from local breeds. Other successful attempts to link breeds with specific products have been made in the meat sector, with Mirandesa cattle in Portugal, Piemontese, Chianina, Marchigiana and Ramangola cattle in Italy and Hinterwälder cattle in Germany.

The FAO report stressed the important contributions made by non-governmental organizations (NGO's) in the management of animal genetic resources, research, advising farmers and establishing breeder societies. Thus, the European Association of Animal Production has been one of the leaders in surveying breeds and conservation efforts to stop erosion of animal genetic diversity, closely working with FAO since early 1980s. The report cites Rare Breeds Survival Trust in the UK, which has about 9,000 members as another example of a non-governmental organization active in management of animal genetic resources.

Most European countries have approved laws that address breeding and other management aspects of domestic animals. However, only 11 out of 26 countries reported having established specific budgets for the management of animal genetic resources, according to a recent survey.

In Western Europe, a public awareness of the value of animal genetic resources and a positive attitude towards the conservation of rare, old breeds has been created. Very often, animal genetic resources are considered as national heritage. Education and awareness programmes on animal genetic resources are generally less developed in Central and Eastern Europe, FAO said. Local-level involvement and organized groups are only in the process of starting. More training and awareness campaigns are needed in these countries.


(*) The FAO European Commission on Agriculture, established in 1949, assists FAO Members in the European Region to cooperate in technological agricultural problems, including research, education, extension, review of nutrition questions and questions relating to the agricultural economy.

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