Globalization threatens farm animal gene pool and future food security, UN warns

15 December 2006 – Around 20 per cent of domestic animal breeds are at risk of extinction, with a breed lost each month, due to a globalization of livestock markets that favours high-output breeds over a multiple gene pool that could be vital for future food security, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) warned today.

“Maintaining animal genetic diversity will allow future generations to select stocks or develop new breeds to cope with emerging issues, such as climate change, diseases and changing socio-economic factors,” the secretary of FAO’s Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, José Esquinas-Alcázar, said.

But of the more than 7,600 breeds in the FAO global database of farm animal genetic resources, 190 have become extinct in the past 15 years and 1,500 more are deemed at risk of extinction according to a draft report, the final version of which is to be presented to an international conference in Switzerland in September that is set to adopt a global action plan to halt the loss.

Some 60 breeds of cattle, goats, pigs, horses and poultry have been lost over the last five years, according to the draft presented to over 150 delegates from more than 90 countries meeting at FAO’s Rome headquarters this week.

Livestock contributes to the livelihoods of 1 billion people worldwide, and some 70 per cent of the rural poor depend on it as an important part of their livelihoods. Globalization of livestock markets is the biggest single factor affecting its diversity, FAO says.

Traditional production systems require multi-purpose animals, which provide a range of goods and services. Modern agriculture has developed specialized breeds, optimizing specific production traits, and just 14 of the more than 30 domesticated mammalian and bird species provide 90 per cent of human food supply from animals.

”Five species – cattle, sheep, goats, pigs and chickens – provide the majority of food production,” FAO Animal Production Service chief Irene Hoffmann said. “Selection in high-output breeds is focussed on production traits and tends to underrate functional and adaptive traits. This process leads to a narrowing genetic base both within the commercially successful breeds and as other breeds, and indeed species, are discarded in response to market forces.”

But the existing gene pool holds valuable resources for future food security and agricultural development, particularly in harsh environments.

The report, the State of the World’s Animal Genetic Resources, the first-ever global study of the status of animal genetic resources and countries’ capacity to manage them sustainably, is based on data from 169 nations. The final version will be published to mark September’s International Technical Conference on Animal Genetic Resources in Interlaken, Switzerland.

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