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Domestic animal diversity : two breeds are lost every week - new report warns that 1,350 breeds face extinction

Rome, 5 December 2000 - Every week the world loses two breeds of its valuable domestic animal diversity, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) said in its 3rd edition of the "World Watch List for Domestic Animal Diversity" released today. The study was co-published with the UN Environment Programme (UNEP).

Over the past decade, FAO has helped collect data from some 170 countries on almost 6,500 breeds of domesticated mammals and birds: cattle, goats, sheep, buffalo, yaks, pigs, horses, rabbits, chickens, turkeys, ducks, geese, pigeons, even ostriches.

"In the past 100 years we have already lost about 1,000 breeds. Our new findings show that domestic animal breeds continue to be in danger: one third are currently at risk of being extinct," said Keith Hammond, Senior Officer of FAO's Animal Genetic Resources Group.

The FAO Global Databank for Farm Animal Genetic Resources contains information on 6,379 breeds of 30 mammalian and bird species. Population size data is available for 4,183 breeds of which 740 breeds are already extinct and 1,335, or 32 percent, are classified at high risk of loss and are threatened by extinction.

"These are conservative figures," Hammond said. "Since 1995, the number of mammalian breeds at risk of extinction has risen from 23 to 35%, as countries have extended their surveys and updated their animal genetic resources data. The situation with bird breeds is even more serious, with the total percentage of those at risk of being lost increasing from 51% in 1995 to 63% in 1999. Alarmingly, without adequate action, a large number of domestic animal breeds at risk of extinction (2,255 breeds) could be lost within the next two decades."

Domestic animal diversity is unique and cannot be replaced, Hammond said. "As much as novel biotechnology may attempt to improve breeds, it is not possible to replace lost diversity. Loss of diversity is forever. Biotechnology will not be able to regenerate diversity if it is lost."

The greatest threat to domestic animal diversity is the export of animals from developed to developing countries, which leads to crossbreeding or even replacement of local breeds, Hammond said. In developing countries, breeds from industrialized countries are still considered as more productive. The problem, however, is that these animals are mainly suited to the conditions of the country they come from and they have difficulty coping with the often harsh environment of developing countries.

"We estimate that 4,000 of the world's remaining breeds are still popular with farmers, but only about 400 are the subject of breeding programmes - almost all of them in developed countries," Hammond added.

Domestic farm animals are essential for food and agriculture; they provide between 30 and 40 percent of the agricultural sector's global economic value. Around 2 billion people are depending at least partly upon farm animals for their livelihood. Meat, milk and egg production will need to more than double over the next 20 years to feed the growing world population. Farm animal production is also important for food, manure for fertilizer and cooking, draught power, fibre, hides and leather for clothing.

"The often difficult environments in developing countries, with very hot, dry and humid climates, require particular types of animal genetic resources, that are adapted to them," Hammond said. "Maintaining animal genetic diversity allows farmers to select stocks or develop new breeds in response to environmental change, diseases and changing consumer demands. Genetic diversity is an insurance against future challenges and threats such as famine, drought and epidemics. Genetic diversity may contain valuable, but unknown resources that could be useful and essential for the future", Hammond added.

Whilst the latest figures show there remains still much to be done, countries and regions have made major efforts since the last global analysis in 1995 to update their breed data for use in taking action, this latest analysis points to serious problems in all regions of the world.

In Sub-Saharan Africa, a total of 738 breeds have been recorded. Around 15 percent of extant breeds on file are at risk. "This is believed to be a gross underestimate of the actual situation," the report said. "The trends for the African region are alarming: The number of mammalian breeds at risk of extinction has increased from 8 to 19% since 1995. The situation with bird breeds is even more serious with the total percentage of breeds at risk of being lost increasing from 20% in 1995 to 34% in 1999."

The Asia and Pacific region contains more than one-fifth of the world's animal genetic resources, with 1,251 domestic animal breeds recorded. The majority of the world's buffaloes and yaks, almost half of its muscovy ducks, pheasants and partridges, one-third of its pig breeds and one quarter of its goat breeds are found in the region. Of the 1,251 breeds recorded, around 10% are at risk. The figures also are underestimated, FAO said. Between 1995 and 1999, the proportion of mammalian breeds at risk of extinction in the Asian region has increased from 11 to 14%, of bird breeds at risk of being lost from 32 to 37%.

In Europe, a large number of breeds are endangered because of their perceived lack of economic competitiveness. The poultry and pig industry are relying on only a handful of specialized breeds. Especially critical is the situation in Eastern Europe with only a few conservation programmes in place. "The current uncertain political climate in the region will accelerate the loss of many breeds," FAO said. Of the 2,576 breeds recorded in Europe, almost half are considered at risk. Between 1995 and 1999, the number of mammalian breeds at risk of loss has increased from 33 to 49%; the number of bird breeds at risk of being lost has grown from 65 to 76%.

Over a quarter of the world's cattle, goat, sheep, pig, duck and turkey breeds and over a half of the world's horse, chicken and geese breeds are recorded in Europe.

In Latin America, around 20% of extant breeds on file are considered at risk. The total proportion of bird breeds at risk of being lost increased dramatically from five percent in 1995 to 45% in 1999. "These figures are alarming and efforts must be made to encourage maintenance of the genetic resources at risk. We must better understand this seemingly very serious situation," FAO said.

In the Near East, much of the domestic animal diversity is now under threat of extinction due to intensification and mechanization, FAO said. Current data is not available for many countries because of unrest and drought. Eight percent of extant breeds are considered at risk (44 of 571), but the real losses are probably much higher.

In North America, "many breeds that were once considered quite valuable have now been confined to the genetic wastebasket," the report said. As in other regions, the continued drive towards intensification and specialization has resulted in the increased reliance on a small number of breeds to meet the demand for food. Of the 259 breeds on file, 35% are threatened by extinction.

FAO said that using as many breeds as possible is likely to be the most cost-effective way of conserving and developing the animal genetic gene pool for the future. Sustainable utilisation and conservation are critical technical elements of the 'Global Strategy for the Management of Farm Animal Genetic Resources', which is currently being developed by FAO to assist countries. The management of animal genetic resources should involve all people, from farmers to policy makers. "Broader participation means better development and use of animal genetic resources."

On the request of countries, FAO is now embarking on a major five-year project that will assist countries to evaluate all aspects of their state of the farm animal genetic resources, their priorities for action in breed development and conservation, and their needs.

A few examples of breeds at risk:

  • In Madagascar, the Renitelo cattle is nearly extinct. It is particularly well adapted to the different climate zones in Madagascar and provides meat and draught power.
  • In Mexico, the Chiapas sheep has been reared for almost 500 years in the highlands of the State of Chiapas. Indigenous women produce wool for their clothing and for sale. Sheep are considered sacred, and people do not consume lamb or mutton.
  • In Vietnam, the importance of H'Mong cattle was only discovered in 1997. For many years, these animals have been kept isolated. The breed is very well adapted to mountain regions up to 3,000 meters. The current population is estimated at 14,000 cattle.
  • In Europe, the German sheep Rauhwolliges Pommersches Landschaf is endangered. It is well adapted to marginal lands. Around 1600 animals are remaining.
  • In the Russian Federation, the Yakut cattle can tolerate temperatures as low as -60°C. Its numbers are estimated to be less than 1,000.

The English version of the FAO/UNEP World Watch List for Domestic Animal Diversity is available on Internet at: http://www.fao.org/dad-is/ For more information please contact: Erwin Northoff, Media Officer, tel: 0039-06-5705 3105,

e-mail: erwin.northoff@fao.org

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Interview with Beate Scherf, FAO Animal Production Officer, produced by Erwin Northoff, on a new FAO global report on domestic animal breeds.(2min40)

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