Maintaining genetic diversity of livestock crucial in era of climate change, UN warns

Maintaining genetic diversity of livestock crucial in era of climate change, UN warns

Roussillon sheep (France)
Calling the rate of livestock breed extinction “alarming” in view of the crucial role diverse genetic resources can play in mitigating the effects of global warming, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) is urging the international community to adopt a global action plan to stem the erosion and protect the world’s food supply.

Calling the rate of livestock breed extinction “alarming” in view of the crucial role diverse genetic resources can play in mitigating the effects of global warming, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) is urging the international community to adopt a global action plan to stem the erosion and protect the world’s food supply.

“Wise management of the world’s animal genetic resources is of ever greater importance,” FAO Assistant Director-General Alexander Müller told the first International Technical Conference on Animal Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture being held in Interlaken, Switzerland.

“The options that these resources offer for maintaining and improving animal production will be of enormous significance in the coming decades. Climate change and the emergence of new and virulent livestock diseases highlight the importance of retaining the capacity to adapt our agricultural production systems.”

Many breeds at risk of extinction have unique characteristics and traits such as resistance to disease or adaptation to climatic extremes that could prove fundamental to the food security of future generations, FAO stressed.

Moreover, widely used breeds need to be managed more wisely. Among many of these breeds, within-breed genetic diversity is being undermined by the use of a few highly popular sires for breeding.

According to FAO’s State of the World’s Animal Genetic Resources report, at least one livestock breed a month has become extinct over the past seven years, which means its genetic characteristics have been lost forever.

Around 20 per cent of the world’s breeds of cattle, goats, pigs, horses and poultry are currently at risk of extinction, according to the report, the first global assessment of livestock biodiversity and of the capacity of countries to manage their animal genetic resources.

“In this situation, the world cannot simply take a business-as-usual, wait-and-see attitude. Climate change means that we are entering a period of unprecedented uncertainty and crisis, which will affect every country,” Mr. Müller said.

“Although animal genetic resources are important for everyone, they are particularly important for many livelihoods in developing countries, often of the very poorest,” he added, stressing the need for governments to assist poor livestock keepers, who are the custodians of a large proportion of animal genetic diversity.

He highlighted climate change as a significant factor to be added to many other threats to livestock breeds. These include rapid, poorly regulated economic and social changes; increasing reliance on a small number of high-output breeds; animal diseases; and poverty, socio-economic instability and armed conflict in some of the areas richest in animal genetic resources.

Representatives of over 120 countries, including policy-makers, scientists, breeders and livestock keepers, are taking part in the week-long meeting to negotiate and adopt a Global Plan of Action for Animal Genetic Resources. The plan will comprise strategic priority areas as well as provisions for implementation and financing.