A new U.N. report says a growing number of farm animals worldwide are in danger of extinction. The report by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) is a global analysis of farm animals worldwide. It finds that of the 3,000 breeds reported between 1999 and 2006, 45 percent are either at risk or already extinct. The loss is rapid. An average of one breed a month disappears from the planet forever.
The threat is especially acute in developing countries, which are home to 70 percent of the world's remaining livestock breeds, and which are least able to afford to protect them.
Ed Rege, who heads the office of biotechnology with the International Livestock Research Institute, contributed to the FAO report. He blames the problem on the world's over-reliance on a handful of farm animal species.
"Countries are opting for short and quick measures such as replacing their breeds with high producing but obviously less adapted breeds from the north," he said.
Such is the case in Ethiopia, where since the 1960s the native 'Sheko' has been replaced with the black and white Holstein-Friesian dairy cow, which although, a high milk producer, is large in size and consumes a lot of feed. The Sheko had been breed for millennia for its natural resistance to disease, particularly the tsetse-transmitted trypanosomosis that sickens cattle and humans.
"We are loosing that," he said. "We are also losing what we don't know, which is that this animal is considered to be resistant to other diseases."
Rege says the critical importance of preserving native livestock breeds was demonstrated not long ago in war-torn Mozambique, where native cattle were wiped out as a result of civil turmoil.
"They used whatever data was available to go to neighboring countries and find similar breeds," he said.
Rege says this strategy can help guard against loss from changes in the market, or from disease, natural disaster or war. That's why the FAO report recommends that farmers be given financial incentives to keep raising and selling their native breeds. The report also urges more research to determine which breeds will adapt best to climate change, and calls for the expansion of animal gene banks for those livestock species at greatest risk.
"That can then be used as security should there be a particular breed that is lost or that is threatened that needs to be reinvigorated genetically," he said.
Rege hopes the FAO report helps raise awareness among policy makers and farmers alike.
"If farmers are made aware and have the information they can use that information] to critique some of the decisions being made by governments or some of the lack of action that the government may be accused of," he said.
Rege says maintaining breed diversity will also help millions of people work their way out of poverty. Seventy percent of the world's rural poor depend on livestock for both food and income.