Livestock biodiversity is essential to food and livelihood security, particularly in the developing world. Livestock provide meat, milk, eggs, fibres, skins, manure for fertilizer and fuel, draught power for cultivation and transport, and a range of other products and services. Many of the world’s rural poor – an estimated 70 percent – keep livestock and rely on them as components of their livelihoods. Domesticated animals also contribute to the ecosystems in which they live, providing services such as seed dispersal and nutrient cycling.
Genetic diversity underpins the many roles that livestock fulfil and allows people to keep animals under a wide range of environmental conditions. Livestock can survive in some of the most inhospitable places on Earth – from Arctic tundras and high mountains to hot dry deserts – where crop production is difficult or impossible.
Livestock populations exposed to extreme climatic conditions develop characteristics that help them survive and produce where other animals would succumb. They adapt to local feeds and develop resistance to diseases and parasites. Natural selection plays a role, but today’s breeds, with their unique combinations of genes, would not have emerged without active management and selection by farmers and pastoralists over the 12 000 years that have passed since the first livestock species were domesticated.
Genetic erosion: counting the loss
Despite their enormous potential contribution to sustainable development and to reducing hunger and poverty, animal genetic resources for food and agriculture are underutilized and underconserved. Of the approximately 8 200 breeds reported to FAO by its Member Countries, more than 2 500 are at risk of extinction or already extinct. During the first six years of this century, more than 60 breeds – almost one a month – disappeared forever, taking with them their unique genetic make-up. Losing these breeds is like losing a global insurance policy against future threats to food security. It undermines capacity to adapt livestock populations to environmental changes, emerging diseases and changing consumer demands.
Maintaining the livestock gene pool
A challenging task
The cost of establishing and maintaining animal gene banks is high compared to the equivalent costs for crop gene banks. Preserving genetic material from animals requires costly materials and equipment, trained staff and a constant power supply. In reality, however, gene banks should serve primarily as a backup to the self-sustained maintenance of breeds in the production systems where they were developed. The overall goal should be to foster long-term sustainable use and development of animal genetic resources – meeting the economic and social needs of livestock keepers and minimizing pressures on the environment and natural resources, while retaining genetic options for the future. To do this, many constraints will need to be overcome:
- knowledge of the characteristics of many of the world’s breeds, including their geographical distributions and the size of their populations, is still lacking;
- many countries lack conservation programmes for their threatened breeds and structured breeding programmes that could improve productivity and help keep breeds in use;
- policies and laws affecting the livestock sector rarely provide adequate support for the sustainable management of genetic resources.
Without concerted action, the goal of sustainably using, developing and conserving animal genetic resources is unlikely to be met.
Recognizing the roles of livestock keepers
At present, much of the world’s animal genetic diversity is maintained by farmers and herders in developing countries. The role of these livestock keepers in maintaining genetic diversity has been acknowledged by the international community, but much remains to be done to ensure that this acknowledgement is backed by concrete action. Research on animal breeding rarely focuses on the low external input production systems of the developing world, and in situ conservation projects are implemented mainly in developed countries. Moreover, small-scale livestock keepers – pastoralists and smallholder farmers – are often marginalized from decision-making processes that affect their production systems, resulting in decisions and policies that pose a threat to their capacity to continue their roles as custodians of livestock biodiversity.
Traditionally, livestock keepers willingly shared their animal genetic resources with their neighbours. Many breeds eventually spread beyond the countries and regions where they were first developed. This open exchange of genetic material contributed greatly to the breadth of breed diversity that exists today. However, as the livestock sector has become more industrialized, the stakes have changed. New challenges, such as recognizing the work and rights of livestock keepers and protecting intellectual property rights and commercial investments in genetics and breeding, have emerged.