Page last updated at 17:40 GMT, Monday, 3 September 2007 18:40 UK

Livestock breeds face 'meltdown'

By Mark Kinver
Science and environment reporter, BBC News

Northern hemisphere breeds displace drought-resistant cattle

Many of the world's rare species of livestock face extinction unless conservation measures are taken now, a group of researchers has warned.

They said modern agricultural methods had overlooked the benefits of genetic traits that have evolved in breeds found in developing countries.

Drought or disease tolerant attributes would become increasingly important to farmers in the future, they added.

The findings were presented at a UN summit on animal genetic resources.

Striking a balance

Researchers from the Nairobi-based International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) said that the global market was dominated by a few breeds, selected for their high-yield characteristics.

They added that a report published by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) found that 90% of cattle in industrialised nations came from only "six tightly defined breeds".

Dairy cow (Image: AP)
The global livestock industry is based on a few northern breeds

But these breeds, from northern temperate regions, were displacing long-established farm animals that were able to cope with conditions found in many developing nations, which was home to 70% of the world's breeds.

They warned that Uganda's indigenous ankole cattle could become extinct within 20 years because it was being displaced by the holstein-friesian, which was able to produce more milk.

However, they said that some farmers had lost their entire herds during a recent drought because the friesians were unable to walk long distances to reach the nearest water supply.

Carlos Sere, the ILRI's director general, said the long-term success of livestock farming depended upon striking a balance between the animals and the environment.

"If you look at the developed world, it has largely adapted the environment to suit high producing animals," he told BBC News.

Dancers (Image: BBC)

"There are barns, optimum diets, health care, vaccinations. You can get high output in a very controlled environment by optimising a lot of the parameters."

But, Dr Sere said, developing nations did not have the resources to adapt the environment, therefore the animals needed to adapt to the environment.

"They have to survive droughts, pests, diseases, and be able to walk long distances - these traits emerge over thousands of years," he said.

"All these traits, through natural selection and mankind's intervention, have developed a whole array of unique genes that are adapted to these things."

However, because the global market was based around a limited number of high-yielding breeds, the valuable global genetic resource was at risk, he added.

The ILRI researchers made four recommendations to ensure the long-term survival of livestock diversity:

  • establish genebanks in Africa to store semen, eggs and embryos
  • allow great mobility of breeds across national borders
  • encourage farmers to maintain a variety of indigenous livestock
  • use advanced genomic and geographical mapping to match breeds to suitable environments

While it might face opposition from campaigners, Dr Sere said the genebank would come into play only if the other recommendations failed.

Mongolian farmer milking a cow (Image: ILRI)
In-situ conservation also keeps indigenous knowledge alive

"What we are saying is that this is insurance that the world is buying," he said.

"In-situ conservation makes a lot more sense because it is cheaper but it also has the very important advantage that it involves the local communities.

"You are not only conserving the genes but you are maintaining the local indigenous knowledge."

However, he added that it was necessary to establish the genebanks as soon as possible because "once the breeds are gone, they are gone forever".

Spreading the risk

Another recommendation that could face opposition amid concerns over biosecurity was moving livestock across national borders.

Poultry farmers across the globe are on alert for signs of avian flu, and farming in the UK is just returning to normal after a localised outbreak of foot-and-mouth, a disease that devastated the industry in 2001.

"We are not saying avoid the whole health dimension," explained Dr Sere. "The central point we are making is that the broader a species is spread, the higher the chance the species will [survive].

"When you have Country A, which has displaced a breed for a higher yielding one, which then realises that the climate is changing or disease pressures change, there is a chance to get it back.

"By having a multi-location use, the chances are much higher than if the resources were just owned by one country."

The researchers' recommendations were presented by Dr Sere at a scientific forum ahead of political discussions at the UN Food and Agriculture Organization's first summit on animal genetic resources.

Delegates at the five-day gathering hope to reach agreement on a global long-term strategy to ensure the survival of the world's livestock breeds.

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