The way in which modern agriculture has developed is pushing it closer to a dead end. Livestock is often being raised under artificial conditions, fed with concentrated feed to speed up the process of maturing, and most importantly it is based on keeping the most efficient breeds to secure the highest profit from each animal.
The trend of shrinking genetic diversity of reared animals creates further risk in the face of climate change. By narrowing down diversity, we are decreasing the capability of our animal production systems to cope with unpredictable weather events, as global warming entails more frequent natural disasters and changes in rainfall patterns, resulting in fluctuations of feed availability.
This puts millions of people whose livelihoods and food security depend on farming in high risk. In addition, further pressure on the food production system will appear as a result of the expected growth in global meat consumption as the Earth’s population rises to 9 billion by 2050 .
A critical step to tackling this challenge is to make sure our production systems are more resistant. The key to doing so is to reinforce the biological capacity of our livestock to adapt to fast changing conditions. It can be achieved through the conservation of the variety of breeds we currently have and the prevention of their extinction along the way. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) published a report in 2015 on The State of the World’s Animal Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, where experts highlighted the importance of livestock genetic diversity in coping with climate change and maintaining food availability.
Why is livestock diversity important?
Genetic diversity of a species is crucial for the health of ecosystems and represents the overall wellbeing of a species. This statement is equally important in nature as in agricultural systems. Throughout the centuries, we have managed to domesticate 38 species of mammals and birds, and create nearly 8,800 different breeds . This is a great achievement and demonstrates the ability to make the most of varying environmental conditions. Although, most of these breeds exist only in small populations, scattered in certain areas of the world, they are important because they carry genetic traits with characteristics required for survival in each habitat – something that might come handy with changing climate.
For example, the Yakutian cattle from Siberia can withstand extremely low temperatures and very low availability of quality feed for most of the year. Their extreme hardiness makes them suitable for farmers interested in low maintenance cattle capable of thriving in high latitude countries.
Before the end of this century, farmers will have to deal with higher uncertainty when it comes to their production because of the shifts in climate. The best strategy to minimize losses is to increase the genetic diversity of animals on farms because each breed comes with its own level of resistance and immunity. This gives farmers flexibility to respond to disease outbreaks, different market conditions, and environmental changes, while reducing the vulnerability of a farm to these externalities.
What is the problem?
The genetic diversity of livestock is under threat. The problem becomes even more urgent with the trend of globalization. This is because traditional breeds are quickly replaced by the high output breeds even in the most remote rural areas, which makes it more difficult to prevent the extinction of local breeds and preserve unique genetic traits they carry.
The approach used in intensive agriculture has led to the extinction of nearly 100 breeds just since the beginning of the century . About 17 percent (1,458) of livestock breeds are classified as at risk of extinction and according to estimates, information about the population size of over half of the breeds we have today is still missing, which means that we cannot predict whether they are getting closer to a critical point beyond recovery or not .
What can be done to reverse further losses?
Even though traditional breeds might be less productive than modern breeds, it is worth sticking to them because in the long run traditional breeds require less input, as they are already well adapted to local conditions and stand better chances against new challenges. Now, this solution applies not only to farmers but also to regular consumers who can contribute by buying local products and supporting small farmers.
On a national level, countries need to closely monitor populations of traditional breeds, and create a strong support system for farmers specializing in their keeping. Because they are “national heroes” who sustain a living legacy of a region. Furthermore, the first project to encourage international cooperation in this field has been in operation since 2007. It is called the “Global Plan of Action for Animal Genetic Resources” and you can find more information about its work on the FAO website.
At the moment we stand on the edge. With a rising population and extreme weather events threatening our food security system, we cannot afford to take any unnecessary risk. If we lose our beautifully diverse breeds we may find ourselves struggling with the availability of quality animal protein, and face serious problems of decreased resilience of our livestock against the impacts of climate change. Therefore, we need to do our best to support the amazing diversity of animals that took our ancestors long centuries of hard work to maintain.