Livestock diversity fading, risking food supply, group says

Published on November 14, 2019

Livestock genetic diversity is fading, with up to one-quarter of livestock breeds lost or at risk of disappearing, according to a recent paper.

Among poultry, upward of 79% of breeds are at risk of extinction.

The Council for Agricultural Science and Technology, a nonprofit organization that promotes farming sciences, published a paper in September that calls for efforts to protect genetic material that could help animal populations adapt, aid research, and fill specialty markets. The most effective conservation efforts combine living populations that can adapt to disease and other challenges and cryopreserved genetic material that can restore lost bloodlines, the paper states.

“In the face of the mounting depletion in genetic diversity among livestock species, there is an urgent need to develop and maintain an intensive program of sampling and evaluation of the existing gene pools,” the paper states. “Genetic diversity can be preserved through living populations or cryopreserved for future use.”

The publication, “Protecting Food Animal Gene Pools for Future Generations,” is part of a CAST series on agricultural innovations needed to feed the global human population by 2050. The authors are with the Department of Agriculture, The Livestock Conservancy in North Carolina, West Virginia University, and Iowa State University, along with a poultry research scientist with no affiliation listed.

The paper indicates seven domesticated species—cattle, sheep, goats, pigs, chickens, turkeys, and ducks—will provide food for 9.6 billion people by the 2050s. Animals already supply one-third of humans’ dietary protein.

Narragansett turkey
The Narragansett turkey matures early and tends to have good egg production, meat quality, and disposition, yet its population is less than 5,000.

U.S. livestock productivity depends on specialized genetic resources. The most productive breeds are becoming less diverse, though, especially among dairy and poultry animals.

The Gulf Coast sheep, with a population of less than 2,000 animals, is resistant to internal parasites and foot rot, as well as some common sheep diseases, the article states. The Narragansett turkey matures early and tends to have good egg production, meat quality, and disposition, yet its population is less than 5,000.

“Although the rare livestock and poultry breeds are currently not major contributors to modern U.S. agriculture, one can examine the recent outbreaks of highly pathogenic avian influenza in the United States (or outbreak of African swine fever in China) and realize that over-reliance on a few highly-productive breeds could endanger the global food supply if these productive breeds are highly susceptible to a new pathogen,” the article states.

In addition to calling for preservation of breeds with diverse properties, the paper’s authors call for government entities, particularly the USDA, to help study genetic and phenotypic diversity, publish data on that diversity, work with philanthropies to fund studies on improving cryopreservation, and invest more money into the USDA Agricultural Research Service’s National Animal Germplasm Program that houses cryopreserved germplasm from livestock species, including poultry and aquatic species.

“A strong need exists to characterize this remaining biological diversity to identify uniqueness that will influence the collection and conservation of breeds,” the article states

Maintaining genetic diversity will help farmers adapt to climate change, farmland urbanization, and consumer demands. Losing that diversity could hurt efforts to feed the world, the article states.

The paper (PDF) is available at the CAST website.

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