FAO Calls for More Protection of Livestock Genetic Diversity

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By Matt Styslinger

Global diversity of livestock breeds is being lost at an alarming rate, creating a global “livestock meltdown,” according to the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI). A report released in late November by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), The Status and Trends of Animal Genetic Resources-2010, found that 21 percent of the world’s livestock breeds are at risk of extinction. FAO has warned that much more needs to be done to better manage the genetic diversity of livestock.

The FAO warns that around 1,710 breeds of livestock—21 percent—are at risk of extinction worldwide. (Photo credit: Bernard Pollack)

The United Nations (UN) has named 2010 as the International Year of Biodiversity, in part because it marks the deadline for significant reductions in global biodiversity loss agreed to by 193 governments as signatories to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). It is now clear that most of the 2010 targets will not be met.

In October, parties to the CBD met in Nagoya, Japan to put into action new targets. The Aichi Targets aim to halve the loss of natural habitats and expand nature reserves from 10 percent of the earth’s land coverage today to 17 percent by 2020. The convention also agreed to the Nagoya Protocol, which will serve to manage the world’s genetic resources and share the financial benefits equitably with developing countries and indigenous communities as those resources are used, patented, and sold.

The FAO also released its second report on The State of the World’s Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture in November, warning of the dangers of failing to conserve wild plant varieties related to crops grown for human consumption. The loss of biodiversity—both plant and animal—will likely have major impacts on food security in the world’s poorest communities, and the report outlines what is being done to protect biodiversity of food crops.

But efforts to catalogue and conserve livestock genetic resources are falling short, says the FAO. In 2007, the Global Plan of Action for Animal Genetic Resources was adopted by 109 countries and has guided subsequent efforts to conserve animal resources for food and agriculture. But progress has been uneven and inconsistent around the world. The action plan was drafted in response to the fact that one livestock breed a month was being lost forever between 2000 and 2007. Now, says the FAO, around 1,710 breeds of livestock are at risk of extinction.

Less well-known livestock breeds throughout the world contain valuable resources that could be vital for food security, especially as the impacts of climate change become more evident. For millennia, pastoralists throughout the world have been breeding livestock that are well-adapted to local conditions. Understanding and preserving these breeds could be useful in helping communities adapt as their climates and environments change in the coming decades.

Anikole cattle, for example, are a breed indigenous to East Africa. They are well-known for their ability to survive in extremely harsh, dry conditions. This trait could become more important as sub-Saharan Africa experiences increasing frequency and intensity of droughts, as climate scientists are predicting.

But governments and agribusiness continue to promote cross-breeding of native livestock breeds with breeds that were designed to gain more weight and produce more milk. The newer breeds can have a hard time adapting to the dry conditions in sub-Saharan Africa and are more susceptible to African pests and diseases. When pastoralists adopt these breeds, they often have to buy pesticides or antibiotics to keep cattle healthy. Nourishing the Planet will be discussing threats to animal genetic resources in Worldwatch Institute’s upcoming book, State of the World 2011Innovations that Nourish the Planet.

“Like a well-balanced stock portfolio, genetic diversity makes food production more resilient in the face of threats like famine, drought, disease, and the emerging challenge posed by climate change,” said Irene Hoffmann, head of FAO’s Animal Genetic Resources Programme. “Cataloguing and conserving this diversity will allow us to maintain and deploy the widest possible portfolio of genetic resources in order to increase the resilience of our food supply and develop improved breeds to help sustain food production.”

An informal survey conducted by the FAO shows that some positive steps are being taken. Belgium and Bolivia, for example, are conductiong major surveys of their livestock breeds and collecting genetic samples. Kenya is collecting information on livestock as part of its national census. And China has established 119 conservation farms for the 138 indigenous breeds it has given protected status to.

National animal genetic resource strategies are in place in 10 countries—including the United States, Germany, Spain, and Albania—and are being developed in 28 others. FAO is hoping to help developing countries implement the Global Plan of Action for Animal Genetic Resources through a funding strategy that prioritizes international cooperation and improved animal genetic resource management.

To read more about biodiversity and how conserving it can help to alleviate hunger and poverty worldwide, see: Conserving Our Genetic Resources for a More Food Secure Future, Drought, Pest Disease and Taste: A Sweet Potato for Every Occasion, Listening to Farmers, Keeping Weeds for Nutrition and Taste, Prospects for a Viable Food Future, Valuing What They Already Have, Creating a Well-Rounded Food Revolution, and Homegrown Solutions to Alleviating Poverty and Hunger.

Matt Styslinger is a research intern with the Nourishing the Planet project.

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