Environment Conventions and agreements

Posted February 1998


Farm Animal Genetic Resources

Introduction Crops Plants Animals Forests Fish Soil

What is domestic animal diversity?

This Special is an extract from "Human Nature: Agricultural Biodiversity and Farm-based Food Security" by Hope Shand, an independent study prepared by the Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI) for the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (December 1997). The full publication is available in Portable Document Format (PDF)
Animal genetic resources include all species, breeds and strains that are of economic, scientific and cultural interest to humankind for agriculture, now and in the future. Of the 50,000 or so vertebrate species in the world today, only about 40 species of mammals and birds are widely recognized as domesticated species [1]. The major animal domesticates include seven mammalian species (asses, buffalo, cattle, goats, horses, pigs and sheep) and four avian species (chickens, ducks, geese and turkeys). These livestock species are used extensively throughout the world in almost all human cultures. Minor domesticated species are found in restricted locations, and though fewer in number, they are critically important to the people whose livelihoods are built around them. Examples are guinea pigs, alpacas, llamas, yaks, camels, elephants, musk oxen and reindeer.

Wild ancestral relatives of domestic livestock also make important contributions to food and agricultural production, and offer genetic potential for the future. The FAO has identified at least 35 species of animals and birds which are the wild relatives of domestic species [2]. Wild species can often thrive and produce in areas unsuitable for conventional domestic livestock. The term "wild" is often misleading; it does not necessarily refer to animals that are un-managed or un-improved by people. Some of these animals are found in the wild, others are farmed, and still others are bred in captivity. Many "wild" or semi-domesticated species, though scarcely recognized on an international level, contribute significantly to household food security. Examples include the African grasscutter, red jungle fowl of Southeast Asia, iguanas of Central America, capybara of South America, vicuna of the high Andes, and the caribou of northern Scandinavia, Russia and North America.

Most animals were first domesticated in the South; North America and Oceania have no indigenous mammalian livestock species [3]. The process of animal domestication began about 11,000 years ago in the Fertile Crescent of Southwest Asia between the Mediterranean Sea and the Persian Gulf. Goats and sheep were the first species to be domesticated for food. Pigs and cattle followed some 8,000 years ago, also in southwest Asia. Horses were domesticated about 6,400 years ago in central Eurasia; chickens were domesticated about 5,000 years ago in Southeast Asia; and buffalo were domesticated about 4,000 years ago in India and Southwest Asia. Alpacas and llamas were domesticated in the Andes mountains some 6,000 years ago. Turkeys were first domesticated in Central and South America about 2,000 years ago [4].

Though the number of domesticated animal species is small, their impact has been enormous. According to FAO, domestic animal species provide an estimated 30-40 percent of the value of all food and agriculture production worldwide [5]. An estimated 1.97 billion people - or one-third of the world's population - depend on livestock for some portion of their livelihood [6]. Animals account for about 20% of the world's food basket directly, but they also contribute draught power and fertilizer for crop production, and provide a valuable form of cash reserves in many mixed farming systems. Livestock process forage and crop waste, inedible by humans, into nutritionally important food products. In addition to food, people have selected animals for a wide range of services and products for both subsistence and income. Livestock provide fibre, draught work, means of transport, pest control, companionship and products such as hides, wool, tallow, bone and manure.

Why is domestic animal diversity important?

Centuries of human and natural selection have resulted in thousands of genetically diverse breeds within the major livestock species [7]. Over the past 11,000 years these breeds were carefully selected and nurtured by thousands of cultures to fit a wide range of environmental conditions, tasks and human needs. The rich genetic legacy we have inherited from our farming ancestors is a vast array of animal breeds, each characterized by its unique adaptive and productive traits. Some livestock and poultry breeds are resistant to parasites or disease, for example, while others are adapted to humidity, or drought or extremes of hot and cold. Domestic animal diversity, represented by this wide range of breeds, is essential to sustain and enhance the productivity of agriculture.

The genetic diversity found in domestic animal breeds allows farmers to select stock or develop new characteristics or breeds in response to changes in the environment, threats of disease, market conditions and societal needs, all of which are largely unpredictable. Breeds which are rare today may carry traits which will be of commercial importance in the future. The Finn sheep, for example, was cast aside by commercial breeders decades ago and kept only by Finnish peasants. Today the Finn's fecundity - its ability to produce litters of lambs instead of singles or twins - is widely utilized in the sheep industry [8]. The rare Taihu pigs of China offer valuable traits for swine breeders worldwide. These pigs can use a high proportion of forage foods in their diet. In addition, they reach sexual maturity in just 64 days and are extraordinarily fertile, producing an average litter of 16 piglets compared to only ten for Western breeds.

Indigenous livestock breeds often possess valuable traits such as disease resistance, high fertility, good maternal qualities, longevity, and adaptability to harsh conditions and poor-quality feeds, all qualities that form the basis for low-input, sustainable agriculture. The Fayoumi chicken of Egypt, for instance, is an indigenous breed that goes back to the time of the Pharaohs. It is a good egg layer, capable of withstanding high heat conditions and is also resistant to several poultry diseases [9].

Rare breeds often possess unique traits of special significance to local people and economies. The Navajo-Churro sheep of the southwestern United States, for example, is valued by Native Americans who use its strong and resilient carpet wool for weaving traditional rugs that are recognized internationally for their beauty and distinctive designs [10]. The rare breed of Reggina cattle found in northern Italy is especially valued for its milk which produces high-quality Parmesan cheese [11].

Indigenous breeds in some regions of the world can survive where newer breeds would perish. The small humpless N'Dama cattle have long been maintained by West African farmers in marginal farming areas. These cattle have developed resistance (trypanotolerance) over thousands of years to a deadly disease transmitted by the tsetse fly - a trait that relatively "modern" African breeds do not possess. Though less productive than industrial breeds, the N'Damas' disease resistance, hardiness and longevity make these cattle extremely valuable in harsh environments.

The gradual disappearance of indigenous breeds that are able to survive in extreme environments, such as deserts or other uncultivatable lands, undermines food and livelihood security for the poor, and the capacity of people to survive in marginal areas of the world. Approximately 40% of the total land available in developing countries can only be used for some form of forage production [12]. An estimated 12% of the world's population lives in areas where people depend almost entirely on products obtained from ruminant livestock - cattle, sheep and goats [13]. Farmers and pastoralists in many areas of the world not only contribute significantly to the maintenance of biodiversity in domesticated animals, they also help keep otherwise barren tracts of land available for human habitation [14]. For these farmers, an animal's most essential quality is not its rate of growth or yield of milk, but its basic ability to survive and reproduce, which in turn ensures the family's self-reliance and survival [15].

Vanishing breeds

No major livestock or poultry species is in danger of extinction, but numerous breeds within those species are declining in population and size, and many have already disappeared. In Europe, half of all breeds of domestic animals that existed at the turn of the century have become extinct, and 43 percent of the remaining breeds are endangered [16]. The 1995 edition of FAO's "World Watch List for Domestic Animal Diversity" includes data on 3,882 breeds for 28 domestic species. It concludes that globally 30% of breeds are classified as endangered and critical [17].

The status of livestock breeds in Europe and North America is better known and documented, while relatively little is known about animal diversity in the South [18]. Yet it is in this region where many of the more unusual and best-adapted animals are found today [19]. It is also where breeds are in greatest danger of genetic erosion. Unfortunately, the lack of data from those regions containing the greatest diversity, gives us an incomplete and distorted picture of the status and trends of domestic animals breeds worldwide. By all accounts, however, the rate of breed extinction has accelerated dramatically over the past 100 years. When a breed becomes extinct, an already narrow genetic base shrinks irreversibly.

Among the critically endangered animal breeds identified by FAO are the North Ronaldsay sheep of the Orkney Islands off Northern Scotland that survive exclusively on a diet of seaweed; the Yakut cattle of Northern Siberia that withstand extreme fluctuations of temperature with little management; the Olkuska sheep native to southern Poland that are exceptionally prolific and sometimes produce litters of five or six lambs; the Javanese Zebu cattle that are highly fertile, hardy and resistant to tick infestation [20]. These are just a few examples of breeds under threat of extinction.

A 1994 North American livestock census, prepared by the U.S.-based, non-governmental organization, American Livestock Breed Conservancy (ALBC), finds rapid genetic erosion in all livestock species of North America [21]. Of 200 breeds of asses, cattle, goats, horses, sheep and pigs examined, nearly 80 breeds are in decline or in danger of extinction. Among the critically endangered breeds is the Gulf Coast Native sheep, a sheep that shows remarkable genetic parasite resistance, and adaptation to the high heat and humidity of their native habitat [22]. The rare American Mammoth Jackstock, unique to North America, is described by ALBC as "one of the finest mule-producing ass breeds in the world," but its numbers have dropped to only a few hundred as draught animals in agriculture have been replaced by machines [23].

Why are we losing animal genetic diversity?

Worldwide, the greatest threat to domestic animal diversity is the highly specialized nature of industrial livestock production. In the industrialized world, commercial livestock farming is based on very few breeds or strains that have been selected for the intensive production of meat, milk or eggs in highly controlled and regulated conditions. The spread of industrial agriculture in the South places thousands of native breeds at risk from genetic dilution or replacement by imported stocks. Commercial breeds imported from North America and western Europe are usually unable to sustain high production in less hospitable environments. They require intensive management and costly inputs such as high-protein feed, medication, and climate-controlled housing. Introduction of intensive animal production in most areas of the South creates dependency on imported technologies and germplasm; it is neither affordable nor sustainable for poor farmers.

The common approach of importing exotic animal breeds to boost productivity of livestock in the South is now being rethought in recognition of the fact that native breeds are far more likely to be productive under low-input conditions. Many native breeds have great potential for increase of production without loss of local adaptation, which can be realized with appropriate selection programmes [24]. According to Keith Hammond, FAO expert on animal genetics, "In 80% of the world's rural areas the locally adapted genetic resources are superior to common modern breeds" [25].

Industrial stocks alone are not an adequate genetic reservoir for the future. These stocks rest on a narrow genetic base which has been selected solely for maximizing production. The commercial white turkey that is mass-produced on factory farms in North America and Europe, for example, has been selected for such a meaty breast that it is no longer able to breed on its own. This broad-breasted breed - which accounts for 99% of all turkeys in the United States today - would become extinct in one generation without human assistance in the form of artificial insemination [26].

Intensive livestock production in the North is characterized not only by genetic uniformity, but also by increasing consolidation in control and ownership of industrial breeding stock. In the poultry industry, for example, 5 industrial breeders, all owned by transnational corporations, dominate the world industrial egg market. Six transnational breeders dominate the world industrial broiler market and just three corporate breeders supply the world's turkey market. The genetic base for industrial poultry is described by Canadian poultry geneticist Roy Crawford as "exceedingly narrow" and "vulnerable to genetic disaster" [27].

Ironically, it is the unparalleled productivity and success of these industrial stocks that is indirectly responsible for most of the erosion and loss of poultry genetic resources worldwide. New animal reproduction technologies also play a role in depleting diversity because techniques such as artificial insemination, multiple ovulation, in vitro fertilization and embryo transfer are capable of producing large numbers of genetically uniform offspring from only a few parents. As fewer and fewer animals are used for breeding, a breed's genetic base is narrowed with every generation. The rapid and widespread introduction of exotic germplasm to all areas of the world is facilitated by reproductive technologies because shipment of semen, ova or embryos is far more practical and less expensive than transporting live animals across continents and oceans. Even well-meaning foreign aid programmes that donate imported animal semen to the developing world, for example, have been cited as agents of extinction for many indigenous breeds, particularly cattle [28]. It is important to note, however, that these same technologies, if properly used, can be valuable tools for genetic resource management and conservation.

Conserving domestic animal diversity

Like plants, animal genetic resources can be conserved both in situ and ex situ. Ex situ involves the preservation of animals in a setting removed from their normal habitat. It includes "cryogenic preservation techniques" - the collection and freezing in liquid nitrogen of animal genetic resources in the form of living semen, ova or embryos, or the preservation of DNA segments in frozen blood or other tissues. Ex situ conservation also includes the captive breeding of wild or domesticated species in zoos or other situations removed from their indigenous environment. Ex situ conservation complements conservation of live populations and provides a safeguard when population numbers are dangerously low. Despite the potential of new molecular technologies, however, scientists are not yet able to artificially re-create extinct animal breeds from bits and pieces of frozen DNA. The genetic diversity of livestock can only evolve in use - and only in use can it retain its value for future generations. In situ conservation enables animal populations to continue to adapt, evolve and be selected for use in their natural environments. Unlike cryogenic techniques which require technology, equipment, knowledge and training for collection and storage, in situ conservation can be carried out at any level, in any country, with the skills and resources already available. In situ livestock conservation programmes are currently administered by national governments, by non-governmental organizations, by cooperative groups of farmers and by individuals.

While ex situ conservation will always play a vital complementary role in preserving animal genetic resources, it will never be an adequate substitute for rural communities who conserve and use livestock genetic resources on a daily basis. Throughout history, agriculture has been shaped by the genius and innovation of millions of livestock breeders dispersed far and wide. In recent decades the spread of industrial livestock production has not only eroded livestock diversity - it has also reduced the number of breeders, conservers and users of animal genetic resources. These trends do not bode well for conservation of livestock biodiversity. People and domestic animals have been linked over centuries of co-evolution and inter-dependence, and this partnership is key to the future conservation and use of animal genetic resources, particularly in the South. Both in situ and on-farm conservation and use of animal breeds must play an increasingly important role in the future of genetic resource conservation. Ultimately, conservation of domestic animal diversity depends on the diversity of human cultures, environments and production systems that helped to shape them over millennia.

Farm animal genetic resources - where's the political debate?

The United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), its Biodiversity Convention and Agenda 21, were the catalyst for formally identifying domestic animal diversity as a genuine and important component of global biodiversity. FAO has been recognized as the most appropriate inter-governmental body to implement a global programme for the conservation and management of farm animal genetic resources. FAO's "Global Programme for the Management of Farm Animal Genetic Resources" was launched in 1992. It aims to:
  1. Identify, monitor and characterize domestic animal diversity;
  2. use and develop animal genetic resources to promote productivity and sustainability in agriculture worldwide;
  3. manage genetic resources to assure long term availability; 4) train and involve people in management and use of animal genetic resources;
  4. communicate to the world community the importance of diversity in domestic animals and their wild relatives.
With the support of the UN Environment Programme and the European Association of Animal Production, FAO has initiated a global inventory and basic description of domestic livestock breeds worldwide. As of mid-1995, the global databank listed 3,882 breeds for 28 domestic species, to be used as a "Global Early Warning System for Animal Genetic Resources."

Issues of Ownership and Control: Under the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) States have sovereign rights over their genetic resources and authority to determine who may have access to them. But there is no farm animal genetic resource equivalent to the FAO Undertaking on Plant Genetic Resources. Given the growing importance of the international transfer and exchange of animal genetic resources, it is important that intergovernmental mechanisms incorporating farm animal genetic resources be designed to protect farmers' rights and to ensure access and exchange consistent with other genetic resources for food and agriculture under the constitutional umbrella of the CBD. It is imperative that farm animal genetic resources be included as part of a possible protocol to the CBD on agricultural biodiversity.

The International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), based in Kenya and Ethiopia, is the international agricultural research centre under the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) that specializes in livestock research, focusing on ruminants. The CGIAR is now examining how it can best coordinate and develop its animal genetic resources activity under FAO's global strategy.


1. Global Biodiversity Assessment, p. 129.
2. Scherf, Beate D., ed., World Watch List for Domestic Animal Diversity (2nd Edition), FAO, Rome, September 1995, pp. 18-20.
3. Mason, Ian L. and Roy D. Crawford, "Global Status of Livestock and Poultry Species," Appendix A, in Global Genetic Resources: Livestock, p. 143. This does not mean that North American and Oceania do not have important animal breeds. Many populations can be identified that are unique to these areas and require conservation efforts.
4. Information about origins of domesticated animal species found in Managing Global Genetic Resources: Livestock, p. 22.
5. Hammond, Keith and H.W. Leitch, "The FAO Global Program for the Management of Farm Animal Genetic Resources, paper presented at: "Biotechnology's Role in the Genetic Improvement of Farm Animals", Beltsville, MD, (US), May 14-17, 1995, p. 2.
6. According to Keith Hammond of FAO this estimate is based on the number of people economically active in agriculture and estimate of farm units incorporating livestock. Personal communication with Keith Hammond, FAO, August, 1996.
7. A breed is a group of animals that can be readily distinguished from other members of the species by some identifiable common appearance, performance, ancestry, selection history, adaptation or other feature.
8. Bixby, Donald E et al. Taking Stock: The North American Livestock Census, McDonald & Woodward, Blacksburg (US), 1994, p. 21.
9. Personal communication from David E. Steane, Animal Production Officer, FAO, 3 March 1993.
10. Taking Stock, p. 84.
11. FAO Press Release, "FAO Releases First World Watch List for Domestic Animal Diversity", 19 November 1993, p. 2.
12. National Research Council, Microlivestock, National Academy Press, Washington, 1991, p. 6.
13. Microlivestock, p. 6.
14. Kohler-Rollefson, Ilse, p. 14-16.
15. Brochure entitled, "The Genetics of Disease Resistance in Tropical Livestock," produced by the International Livestock Research Institute, nd, p. 2.
16. FAO Press Release, 28 January 1992, "Livestock Breeds in Developing World Threatened,"p. 1. See also FAO Press Release, 5 December 1995, "New FAO World Watch List for Domestic Animal Diversity Warns: Up to 1,500 Breeds Are at Risk of Extinction," p. 2.
17. Hammond, Keith and H.W. Leitch, "The FAO Global Program for the Management of Farm Animal Genetic Resources", p. 5. FAO defines endangered as populations having 1000 breeding females and 20 breeding males. Critical populations have 100 breeding females and 5 breeding males.
18. Managing Global Genetic Resources: Livestock, p. 13.
19. Mason, Ian L. and Roy D. Crawford in Global Genetic Resources: Livestock, p. 142.
20. FAO press release, "FAO Releases First World Watch List for Domestic Animal Diversity", 19 November 1993, p. 2.
21. Taking Stock, p. 107.
22. Taking Stock, p. 20.
23. Taking Stock, p. 32.
24. Hall, Stephen J.G. and Daniel G. Bradley, "Conserving Livestock Breed Biodiversity," TREE, Vol. 10, No. 7 (July 1995), p. 267.
25. FAO Press Release, 5 December 1995, "New FAO World Watch List for Domestic Animal Diversity Warns: Up to 1,500 Breeds Are at Risk of Extinction," p. 2.
26. A Conservation Breeding Handbook , p. 20.
27. Crawford, R.D., "Poultry Conservation: The International Situation," unpublished paper, nd. See also, Ian L. Mason and Roy D. Crawford in Global Genetic Resources: Livestock, p. 163-4.
28. Hall, Stephen J.G. and John Ruane, "Livestock Breeds and Their Conservation: A Global Overview," Conservation Biology, Vol. 7, Number 4 (December 1993), p. 823.

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