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A call to action for animal genetic resources

China is far ahead of most countries in documenting its animal genetic resources (World Bank)
China is far ahead of most countries in documenting its animal genetic resources
World Bank

In September 2007, delegates from over 100 countries adopted a Global Plan of Action for Animal Genetic Resources. As the first internationally agreed framework to halt the erosion of livestock diversity, this heralded a major step forward in supporting the sustainable development and conservation of livestock breeds. Three years on, further progress has been made in documenting the state of the world's animal genetic resources (which FAO refers to as "AnGR"), but greater support - both financially and politically - is required if breeds at risk are to be brought back from the brink of extinction.

Over 8,000 livestock breeds are documented in FAO's Global Databank for AnGR. Of these, some 20 per cent are classified as at risk and almost 700 are already extinct. Whilst this is acknowledged as the most comprehensive assessment of animal biodiversity so far, the overall state of genetic erosion is difficult to determine as data from certain parts of the world, particularly smaller countries and island states, is not available.

Worldwide, production of meat, milk and eggs is increasingly dominated by a small number of international breeds and, as a result, almost every month, another livestock breed becomes extinct. With this increasing bias towards exotic breeds and industrialised livestock keeping, the value of indigenous breeds is often overlooked or ignored.

Narrow base of dependency

Industrialisation and inappropriate introduction of exotic breeds is not the only threats to genetic diversity: disease outbreaks, extreme weather events, loss of land rights and conflict, amongst other factors, are also taking their toll. While there is no documented assessment of the impact of ten years of land reform and internal conflict in Zimbabwe, for example, it is known that many pedigree cattle have been slaughtered and, out of 26 registered breed societies, less than half are now operational and most of these have only one or two pedigree breeders.

Nguni cattle are one of Zimbabwe's indigenous breeds that need to be protected (Edward Nengomasha)
Nguni cattle are one of Zimbabwe's indigenous breeds that need to be protected
Edward Nengomasha

The main indigenous cattle breeds in Zimbabwe are the Tuli, Mashona and Nguni. Small numbers of these are still kept by smallholder farmers, particularly where there is a strong tradition of livestock keeping. However, little support is available for maintaining breeds, and farmers are often forced to sell their animals or slaughter them for meat. "It is frightening," says an official from within Zimbabwe. "We had breeds which were in their thousands, now we are talking of hundreds. And that is just cattle. Small stock is mostly in the hands of smallholder farmers but we've got problems with other species as well. It's a pity we have been reduced to this level."

Renowned at one time for its dairy production and beef exports, an inventory of the current status of breeds in Zimbabwe is yet to be completed. But, despite ongoing difficulties, there have been some efforts to rebuild national herds, although it is acknowledged that it won't be easy. "At one time we were exporting thousands of tonnes of beef, but it is no longer there. We are all praying that we will be able to get on with the work but it is going to take a long time, more than ten years to get back to where we were," says the same official.

China leads the way

Another country currently undertaking an inventory of its animal genetic resources is China, a country that thirty years ago boasted a wide range of local breeds. But, as the economic and social situation in China has changed dramatically over the past three decades many indigenous animals have already been lost. In remote regions, it is also acknowledged that not much is known about some of the breeds that remain.

Even China has had difficulty documenting breeds in its more remote regions (Yang Hongjie)
Even China has had difficulty documenting breeds in its more remote regions
Yang Hongjie

Yang Hongjie, Chief of International Cooperation for the National Animal Husbandry Service in Beijing, states that the AnGR survey will not only determine the current status of breeds within China but will also be used to monitor and evaluate further changes in breed populations. He stresses that, "It's a very crucial time. The diversity of animal genetic resources is the basis for further developing animal production and also for human livelihoods in China. We have to take action now otherwise valuable genetic resources may be lost."

Avoiding extinction demands government action

The good news is that since the Interlaken meeting in 2007, awareness of the importance of conserving animal genetic resources within China has increased and additional funds have been set aside to support it. Hongjie reports that central government funding for conservation research is now 24 million Chinese yen, eight times more than before the Interlaken meeting. But he admits that getting such support for other developing countries for implementing the Global Plan of Action agreed at Interlaken may be more difficult, unless governments and funding agencies allocate funds to provide long-term support of national, regional and international animal genetic resources programmes and activities.

The important of government commitment to the Global Plan of Action cannot be underestimated. As Jacques Diouf, director-general of FAO, stated before the Interlaken conference, "Animal diversity is part of our common heritage that is too valuable to neglect. Commitment and cooperation by governments in the sustainable use of animal genetic resources is urgently required. There is no time to lose. Extinction is forever."

Date published: March 2009

 

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