Animal Genetics Resources
Livestock biodiversity is essential to food and livelihood security, particularly in the developing world. Livestock provide meat, milk, eggs, fibres, skins, manure for fertilizer and fuel, draught power for cultivation and transport, and a range of other products and services. Many of the world’s rural poor – an estimated 70 percent – keep livestock and rely on them as important components of their livelihoods. Domesticated animals also contribute to the ecosystems in which they exist, providing services such as seed dispersal and nutrient cycling.
Livestock exposed to extreme climatic conditions develop adaptive characteristics that help them survive and produce where other animals would succumb. They adapt to local feed resources and develop resistance to diseases and parasites. Natural selection plays a role, but today’s breeds with their unique combinations of genes would not have emerged without continuous active management and selection by farmers and pastoralists over the 12 000 years since the first livestock species were domesticated.
Despite their enormous potential contribution to sustainable development and to reducing hunger and poverty, animal genetic resources for food and agriculture are underutilized and underconserved. Of the 7 600 breeds reported to FAO by its Member Countries, more than 1 500 are at risk of extinction or are already extinct. During the first six years of this century, more than 60 breeds – almost one a month – disappeared forever, taking with them their unique genetic make-up. Losing these breeds is like losing a global insurance policy against future threats to food security. It undermines capacity to adapt livestock populations to environmental changes, emerging diseases or changing consumer demands.
The cost of establishing and maintaining animal gene banks is high compared to those for crops. Preserving animal genetic material entails costly materials, equipment, trained staff and a constant power supply.
In reality, however, gene banks should primarily serve as a backup to maintaining the breeds in the production systems in which they were developed. The overall goal would be to foster the long-term sustainable use and development of livestock breeds – meeting the economic and social needs of livestock keepers and minimizing pressures on the environment and natural resources while retaining genetic options for the future.
At present, much of the world’s animal genetic diversity is maintained by the farmers and herders of developing countries. The role of these livestock keepers in maintaining genetic diversity has been acknowledged by the international community, but much remains to be done to ensure that this acknowledgement is backed by concrete action. In situ conservation projects take place mostly in developed countries. Moreover, small-scale livestock keepers – pastoralists and smallholder farmers – are often marginalized from decision-making processes that affect their production systems, resulting in decisions and policies that pose a threat to their capacity to continue as custodians of livestock biodiversity.
In 2007, FAO unveiled The State of the World’s Animal Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, a first-ever, global assessment of the status and trends of animal genetic resources. This work serves as an authoritative reference from which to plan management projects.
The State of the World’s Animal Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture was initiated in the late-1990s, when the Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture requested that FAO coordinate a country-driven assessment of animal genetic resources. At that time, the Commission also established its subsidiary Intergovernmental Technical Working Group on Animal Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture. By 2005, 169 countries had submitted reports that, combined with reports from international organizations and input from highly recognized scientists and experts, formed the basis of the State of the World. The final report was presented to the International Technical Conference on Animal Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, held in September 2007 in Interlaken, Switzerland.