Hardy breeds of livestock vital for world food supplies are dying out across developing countries, especially in Africa, farm scientists are warning. The researchers are calling for the creation of regional gene banks to save such breeds.

"There is a livestock meltdown under way across Africa, Asia and Latin America. Valuable breeds are disappearing at an alarming rate," Carlos Seré of the International Livestock Research Institute told a gathering convened by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in Interlaken, Switzerland. "In many cases we will not even know the true value of an existing breed until it has already gone."

Native breeds are increasingly being supplanted by high-yield Western farm animals, which may be less well able to adapt to their new environment in times of drought or disease, found a joint report by Seré’s institute and the FAO on the diversity of farm animals in 169 countries.

For example, in northern Vietnam, local breeds made up 72% of the pig population in 1994, but eight years later the proportion had dropped to 26%. Of the 15 local pig breeds, 10 now face possible extinction.

Tougher cattle
The black and white Holstein-Friesian dairy cow has high milk yields, and is now found in 128 countries and all of the world’s regions. Fast egg-laying white leghorn chickens and quick-growing large white pigs are other examples of high-yield stock.

These breeds offer high volumes of meat, milk and eggs. But the researchers warn that the growing reliance on a handful of farm animal species is causing the loss on average of one livestock breed every month in developing countries.

And over the longer term, the imported breeds may not cope with unpredictable environmental change or outbreaks of indigenous disease.

For example, many experts predict that Uganda’s indigenous Ankole cattle, famous their graceful and gigantic horns, could be extinct within 20 years because they are being rapidly supplanted by Holstein-Friesians.

Yet, during a recent drought, farmers who had kept their Ankole were able to walk them long distances to water sources, while those who had switched to the imported breeds lost their entire herds, Seré told the meeting.

"For the foreseeable future," says Seré, "farm animals will continue to create means for hundreds of millions of people to escape absolute poverty."

He is calling for the creation of gene banks to store semen, eggs and embryos of farm animals. Seré says such gene banks have been set up in Europe, the US, China, India and parts of Latin America, but are absent from Africa.

But gene banks are just one step needed to better manage farm animals in developing countries, Seré says. The other steps he suggests are:

• Encouraging farmers to maintain a diversity of breeds

• Making it easier for farm animals to cross national borders with their owners

• Generate "landscape genomics", which help predict which breeds are best suited to different environments around the globe

Via:  New Scientist