Since the early days of civilization, humans have depended on domestic livestock, poultry and their products for survival. Of all the animal species, few have been domesticated but those that have comprise large numbers of breeds. Over the centuries, interbreeding within domesticated species has produced new gene combinations which allow the most suitable breed or crossbreed to be chosen for reproducing under specific conditions. In recent years, however, this process of selection has been accelerated and has resulted in the growing tendency to lose old indigenous breeds which are replaced or crossed with exotic germplasm. The consequence is that some breeds in developing countries have been lost without their special characteristics being recorded and evaluated. Unfortunately, the task of characterizing so many breeds is enormous and will not be able to be completed before many more breeds are lost. Growing concern over this loss of animal genetic resources has led FAO, in cooperation with national governments, to establish regional animal gene banks in Africa, Asia and Latin America, and to set up a Global Animal Genetic Data Bank.
Domestic livestock and poultry of the world have lived in close association with humans since the early days of civilization and constitute a unique genetic heritage. Their contribution to human welfare consists in providing meat, milk, eggs, fibre and draught animal power. Populations with simple lifestyles may be totally dependent on animals for many types of work while, in more advanced communities, animal protein diets are regarded as the most beneficial and prestigious. In many societies domestic animals also provide recreation and their value is often reflected in their use in traditional ceremonies and as a measure of wealth. It has been well said that the cow is the foster mother of humankind.
The result of this close association over thousands of years has been the gradual adaptation of animals to most of the varied climates of the world. Cattle, for example, are found wherever humans have settled. Sheep, goats, pigs and poultry are also very widely dispersed while some minority species, such as the camelidae, yaks, mithun and elephants, are more restricted in their geographic distribution, although they al-e closely associated with the lifestyles of local people in specific environments nevertheless. Very few animal species have been chosen by humans for domestication, but there are numerous breeds within each of the species selected. Many of these species have adapted to the rigours of harsh climatic conditions, are resistant to endemic diseases and are able to survive on poor-quality and seasonal feed supplies. The possibility of interbreeding animals and germplasm around the world today has presented humans with an unprecedented opportunity to produce new gene combinations within animal species. This has both positive and negative aspects. The positive side is the chance to choose the breed or cross-breed best suited to produce well under specific conditions. The negative side is the growing tendency to lose old indigenous breeds as they are replaced or crossed with exotic germplasm.
Thus, society is clearly in the process of losing part of the unique heritage of animal genetic resources that it has tended so carefully for thousands of years. Some breeds have already died out. The tragedy is that in some cases we do not even know what the special qualities of those lost breeds were. However, the process of characterizing the large number of existing breeds is enormous and cannot be undertaken until it is decided that they should be conserved. In the future these genetic traits may well be needed, as they are of great scientific interest. They are also representative of humankind's history and culture.
Biological diversity in plants, forest-trees, wild and domestic animals, microbes, fresh and deep-sea fish are all being threatened by human society's intensifying efforts to improve standards of living. There is growing international concern about this loss and negotiations are in progress for an international convention on biological diversity. FAO is particularly concerned about the sustainable use of the biological resource base of agriculture, forestry and fisheries. Sustainable development implies that the process of using the resource base will continue, but in such a manner that the resources are not depleted.
This process has already started with animal genetic resources. In cooperation with national governments. FAO has established regional animal gene banks in Africa, Asia and Latin America, and created a Global Animal Genetic Data Bank together with the European Association for Animal Production. These activities are described in the lead article in this issue.