Extinction is forever: Domestic animal breeds in danger

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WASHINGTON – Every week, the world loses two breeds of its domestic animal population, according to estimates just published in the third edition of the World Watch List for Domestic Animal Diversity.

The publication, issued by the Food and Agricultural Organization and the United Nations Environment Program, results from 10 years of data collected in 170 countries, covering 6,500 breeds of domesticated mammals and birds: cattle, goats, sheep, buffalo, yaks, pigs, horses, rabbits, chickens, turkeys, ducks, geese, pigeons and even ostriches.

“In the past 100 years, we have already lost about 1,000 breeds,” said Keith Hammond, senior officer of FAO’s Animal Genetic Resources Group. “Our new findings show that domestic animal breeds continue to be in danger: one third are currently at risk of extinction.”

Economic value.

Domestic farm animals provide 30-40 percent of the agricultural sector’s global economic value. Around 2 billion people – one third of the global population – depend at least partly on farm animals for their livelihoods. Meat, milk and egg production will need to more than double over the next 20 years to feed the growing world population, according to FAO.

The FAO Global Databank for Farm Animal Genetic Resources contains information on 6,379 breeds within 30 mammalian and bird species. Data on population size are available for 4,183 breeds. Already, 740 breeds are recorded as extinct, and 1,335, or 32 percent, are classified at high risk of loss and under threat of extinction.

“These are conservative figures,” said Hammond. “Since 1995, the number of mammalian breeds at risk of extinction has risen from 23 percent to 35 percent.”

Bird breeds. The loss situation facing bird breeds is even greater. The total percentage of breeds at risk of loss increased from 51 percent in 1995 to 63 percent in 1999.

Without adequate action, more than 2,000 domestic animal breeds could be lost within the next two decades, said FAO. Domestic animal diversity is unique and cannot be replaced. “As much as novel biotechnology may attempt to improve breeds, it is not possible to replace lost diversity,” said Hammond. “Extinction is forever. Biotechnology will not be able to regenerate breeds if they are lost”.

Animal export.

The greatest threat to domestic animal diversity is the export of animals from developed to developing countries, which often leads to crossbreeding or even replacement of local breeds. In developing countries, breeds from the industrialized world are considered more productive. The problem, however, is that these animals are only suited to conditions of the countries they come from; they can hardly survive under the often harsh environment of developing countries.

“Estimates indicate that 4,000 of the world’s remaining breeds are still popular with farmers, but only about 400 are the subject of breeding programs – almost all of them in developed countries,” said Hammond.

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